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Review by: Laura Tanenbaum

5/01/02

The Sweetest Dream
By Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing, now in her eighties, is the author of well over forty books, including twenty-four novels, short stories, poetry, drama, essays, and autobiography. In control of an omnipotent intelligence that permeates every page, Lessing imbues many of these works with their own staggering sense of scope. While in some ways a novel "about the sixties," The Sweetest Dream is in fact a consideration of how the now familiar and taken for granted "horrors of the century" continued to reverberate as it drew to a close.

We begin in the sixties with a sprawling and fluid Lennox clan, continually taking in the castoffs of other families as well as a first wife or two. According to Julia, mother of the unrepentant and comically Stalinist Comrade Johnny, these are the wounds of war. The wounds stretch backwards, to the lost world of Julia's traditional German upbringing, as well as forwards, to a small African village devastated by AIDS. For the most part, Lessing's caustic gaze presents a range of unsurprisingly selfish and self deceiving figures, brilliantly reproducing the sense of exhilaration and exasperation of a home in which an endless string of almost interchangeable crises become the norm. In his review in The New Yorker, Louis Menand, referring to her portrait of the sixties in particular, notes that "to readers who know only The Golden Notebook -- or only the reputation of The Golden Notebook -- this may seem like recanting. It is not." In the United States, depictions of the sixties have often been viewed through a particular political lens: one either defends the era's idealism or condemns it for planting the seeds of every contemporary social crisis -- a response that has shaped the reception of a novel like Philip Roth's American Pastoral. Yet while for Roth the extremes of the period are an unfathomable break from the American story, from Lessing's international perspective they are one more example of what Menand calls the illusion "that people can remake themselves by catching up with the times." The response to the sixties that emerges in The Sweetest Dream is not Roth's shock at the new but a sad sigh from one who had been through different versions of the battles many times before.

I was most struck, however, by the vibrant exceptions in this novel. Frances Lennox sits at the center of the chaos, nurturing the young and old, who often make her task impossible. Later in the novel, Sylvia, once an anorexic stepchild adding to Frances' headaches, has become a doctor, caring for AIDS patients in rural Africa under impossible circumstances. In Frances and Sylvia, however, the impulse towards giving under impossible conditions is seen as an equally irrepressible trait and offers a powerful corrective to Menand's assessment of the book's "coldness." Altruism is a difficult phenomenon to explore in a novel; I've often had the sense that authors fear placing it under the same detached examination to which they routinely expose human emotions and impulses. For the most part, Lessing does not subject Frances and Sylvia's goodness to the same rigorous analysis as the ideologies that saturate the novel but presents that goodness to us vividly and movingly. Here, wishing to do good is not a mask for resentment (as it is in so many places within the novel) and it even works sometimes, although always at a high cost.

Nowhere is this cost more powerfully suggested than in the second half of the novel, in which we move from London to Zimlia, an African country closely resembling Zimbabwe, (where Lessing was born when the nation was still colonial Rhodesia). Some readers will no doubt respond to the sections on Africa as a shocking or disheartening portrait of corruption, filled with international jet-setters discussing development and poverty while staying in plush hotels. These are people who cannot stop speaking long after the words have lost their meaning. One more attempt at discussion is made: "And, discussing, they went off" (442). Given the novel's historical sweep, we are poignantly reminded once again how large the promise of the liberation of the Third World and of Africa in particular once loomed around the world, and how unfathomable the current poverty of much of the world remains to the affluent. Much more than an examination of an era, The Sweetest Dream is the story of the remains left by lost dreams across the world, and nowhere is the toll greater than in an Africa betrayed by governmental and economic forces alike.

ISBN: 0066213347

Louis Menand, "Both Sides Now," The New Yorker, February 18 & 25, 2002.

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