'Sweetest Dream': Lessing, nostalgic

February 03, 2002|By Dorothea Straus | By Dorothea Straus,Special to the Sun

The Sweetest Dream, by Doris Lessing. HarperCollins. 479 pages. $26.95.

Doris Lessing writes in her author's note, "I am not writing volume three of my autobiography. ... Which does not mean I have novelised autobiography." She has, indeed, produced a work of fiction, an impressive one, an essence of her long, full life.

The Sweetest Dream takes place, in the main, in the 1960s, but Lessing has not fallen into the traps of neatly partitioned decades. This work illustrates that each period of history is derived from its predecessor and foreshadows the one to come. Her books are often brutally honest, admitting, frankly, her former errors as well as hopes, dashed -- but she is unable to be indifferent.

This latest novel is set within the walls of a capacious London townhouse, populated by an assortment of leftwing comrades. It is maintained through the funds of Julia, a wealthy dowager born in Germany during the Weimar Republic. Julia has lived in London since her marriage to an English man, and she has one son, Johnny, the leader of a Marxist movement in England. Johnny's ex-wife, Frances, holds the crowded household together. It is she who presides at table over the various tenants -- the young, the middle-aged, the elderly, lovers, waifs, and strays, blood relatives and transient connections -- united by their more or less active faith in Communism.

Although Frances is often tempted to join the Feminist Party or venture onto the stage, her designated role is housemother and she is most often located before the stove providing nourishing stews for her politically intense population. Johnny, by contrast, comes and goes, his talk more inciting than his actions. "He wanted to pull down everything about his ears like Samson. That was what it was all about. The Revolution which he and his mates never stopped talking about would be like directing a flame over everything leaving scorched earth . . . he and his mates would rebuild the world in their image."

Among the ideologically homogeneous citizens of this nation in microcosm, there are two misfits: Julia, on the top floor, living among the remnants of rich velvet and brocades of the Belle Epoque, and her step-granddaughter, Sylvia, a frail anorexic child, healed by the love and attention of the aging woman. Somehow, Sylvia outgrows her infantile sensitivity to become a stouthearted doctor, an embattled philanthropist, a type of latter-day saint.

Now, as in the theater, the stage is shifted to a ramshackle shed, the hospital of Zimlia in the African bush country. Here, Sylvia and her co-worker, Father MacGuire, an Irish priest, maintain the impoverished establishment through their dedication to the natives, dying from AIDS and other devastating diseases. Sylvia travels to the newly liberated African country of Senga, where Comrade Mo, a black Stalin, reigns. Her mission fails: "in Senga, the fat get fatter every day." Colin, a writer, the younger son of Frances and Johnny, tells Sylvia, " ... we are entitled to conclude with all the hindsight we lucky inheritors have been endowed with, that there is one way of not finding the truth, it's going there to see it yourself."

At the end of The Sweetest Dream, Sylvia delivers two preadolescent orphan boys from Zimlia to the house in London. Frances, happily remarried now, welcomes them. Julia is dead, but the faint aroma of ashes of roses still lingers on the top floor. Below, the leftwing fervor has faded away.

Lessing avoids all sentimentality, but nevertheless the reader detects an inexplicable nostalgia for those enthusiasms and the mistaken ideals of the past. The gods had clay feet -- what next? The author does not tell us, and despite a vein of bitterness, her vigorousness points toward something new -- different. Her spirit is everywhere, but true to her word, her autobiographical presence is nowhere.

Dorothea Straus has written seven books, and her work has been published in Yale Review, Raritan, Partisan Review, Fiction, Commentary, Confrontation, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and The Baltimore Sun. She lives in New York City.

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