Wednesday, November 24, 2004

An old tale told by a wise woman

Mara and Dann: An Adventure, by Doris Lessing.

(Read a very short excerpt.)

I found myself thinking about Mara often between readings. Even when I was being sick, holding back my hair and pitying myself, I thought to myself, Get a grip. What would Mara think? Think of all she's been through — you think this is misery? Poor Mara...

One review lists some of their adventures.

Lessing's prose is dispassionate. This simplicity and matter-of-fact attitude enhance the story's fairy-tale quality. Lessing herself in the preface admits that this story is the reworking of a very old tale, found not only in Europe but in most cultures of the world. It is eerily familiar, yet we are compelled to know what happens next.

As foreign as this landscape is to us (we who sit in front of our computers while it rains outside, considering whether to order out for supper) it is likely not as distant as it seems — a friend of a friend, family, a neighbour knew some hardship in their childhood, came from a war-torn country, has known famine or drought, at least witnessed the devastation of the third world. That world is not so far away, but for an accident of geography.

(I'm reminded of my own family's tales, separations during wartime, and awed by the forces that always drew them back together. They are steeped in stories and intrigue that remain secret, for what they shared cannot be shared. How do you share the unspeakable?)

Neither Lessing nor her characters are ever preachy, though they have many lessons to teach us if we listen carefully. We are treated to a museum description of the ancients:
These were peoples who had no interest in the results of their actions... They spoiled everything they touched. There was probably something wrong with their brains. There are many historians who believe that these ancients richly deserved the punishment of the Ice.

but then the subject is dropped.

Another review identifies some of the issues that rise to the surface without bubbling over.

Lessing's prose here is deceptively simple. There are no grand pronouncements, no outright disquisitions on imperialism, postcolonialism, incest (Mara and Dann struggle with their romantic attachment to each other), ecosystemic disaster, the second sex, the failure of communism or the persistence of slavery in Africa today, but they, and much more, are implied, embedded in Lessing's spare portrait of a world in which everything and nothing about nature and culture has changed radically. If there is a theme, or aphorism, to be gleaned from Lessing's storybook view into the distant future, it is not the familiar conviction that "This, too, shall pass," but, after Nietzsche, the bitter conclusion that "This, too, will happen again ... and again, and again."

Mara grew up playing a game: What Did You See? In the evenings, one of her parents would ask her the question. A guardian later took up the task of Mara's education in this manner, until Mara learned to ask it of herself. Early on Mara recognized that the game evolved from what she saw to what she was thinking, and what made her think that. There was no end to what she knew, and the answers were within her.

Another review notes Lessing's technique:

The journey is viewed almost exclusively through Mara's eyes, and the storytelling mode has been carefully chosen to match, not only her expanding ability to relate word to concept, but her awareness besides of a physical background in which there is simply not enough language available to convey or lend nuance to sensory experience.

The result is a perverse chemistry typical of Lessing at her exasperating best.

Doris Lessing official web site.
Wikipedia entry.
Interview: New York Times (1982).
Interview: Salon (1997).
Interview: in which she speculates that Dickens might've been good in bed (2004).

A wholly remarkable woman! A wonderful book!

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