Beware of those who plan to save the world: That is one message to be gleaned from Doris Lessing’s skeptical fiction about the left in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. But just as “The Aeneid” offers more than a cautionary tale concerning the reliability of Greeks bearing gifts, Lessing can do plenty besides mercilessly detail the hypocrisies and selfishness of the party members and barricade manners she knew during her days among Britain’s radicals. It’s just that she skewers them so beautifully, with such consummate, wicked skill, that she distracts you from the countless other gifts that make her one of the major novelists of our time.
“The Sweetest Dream” is Lessing in fine form. While the material isn’t new to her, she explains in her author’s note that this fictional treatment is meant to stand as an alternative to Vol. 3 of her autobiography, a book she will not be writing for fear of causing hurt “to vulnerable people.” Instead she aims in this novel to “recapture the spirit of, particularly, the Sixties.”
In doing so, she notes, she’s transposed to that decade a controversy that arose over 10 years later, when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament “took a stand against the government doing anything at all to protect the population against the results of nuclear attack,” and verbally and physically abused those who disagreed. “There has never been a more hysterical, noisy and irrational campaign,” Lessing pronounces.
Maybe, maybe not — but clearly for Lessing the CND’s extreme position epitomizes a certain radical propensity for placing ideological purity over the welfare of real people. Lessing’s disgust at this sort of thing is what drives “The Sweetest Dream,” and it is an engine of formidable power. But Lessing is also 83 years old, with the seasoned perspective on humanity that comes from having spent so many years in its company. Rarely is such a mature sensibility animated by so much emotional energy; wisdom is usually the province of the old and scouring rage a property of youth. “The Sweetest Dream” has both, along with an expansiveness reminiscent of Balzac.
The node that links the dozen or so characters in the novel is Comrade Johnny, the posturing, irresponsible communist son of Julia Lennox, German-born widow of an upper-middle-class Englishman. Johnny’s ex-wife, Frances, shares Julia’s multilayered London house, along with Johnny’s two sons, Colin and Andrew, and a rotating cast of rebellious teenagers who have fled their own homes for Frances’ easygoing household and its long, bountiful, boisterous kitchen table.
Though Johnny only occasionally materializes to soak up the admiration of “the kids,” to make stirring speeches about how “the revolution comes before personal matters” and to repeatedly disappoint Frances’ hopes that he’ll finally contribute something to the support of his family, he’s not above dumping his discarded wives and stepchildren on Julia and Frances’ doorstep when “the Cause” demands that he devote his attention elsewhere. (The fact that Lessing herself, as a young communist, abandoned her three young children when she left Africa for England only makes this portrait of political selfishness more biting.)
One of these strays, Sylvia, becomes the focus of the novel’s second half. Nursed back from traumatized anorexia by Julia and Frances, she becomes a doctor and takes a post in a remote town in the post-colonial African republic of Zimlia (a stand-in for Zimbabwe, where Lessing grew up). There, teetering on the brink of untenable self-sacrifice, Sylvia patches together a little hospital and school, scrabbling for supplies and fending off corrupt, interfering officials from a black-run government that has betrayed countless promises to provide for its people. The novel’s supporting characters include a malevolent leftist journalist seething with chronic, unprovoked resentment, a passel of half-mad women therapists, a fresh-faced African lad who becomes a hopelessly compromised Zimlian minister and many more, all bristling with life.
Lessing makes the point that whatever good gets done in the world is usually the work of people like Frances and Sylvia, who reach in with both hands to address a crisis, whether it be an abandoned child or a malaria-stricken village. Specimens like Johnny — who “had spent probably two-thirds of his life in comradely luxury hotels in the Soviet Union, Poland, China, Czechoslovakia,” etc. — and their rabble-rousing, conference-attending, theory-spouting ilk are little better than parasites and sometimes far, far worse.
Everyone from feminists to astrologers gets a scathing dose of Lessing’s attention, but “The Sweetest Dream” never descends into Swiftian misanthropy. For all the slaps aimed at Zimlia’s bosses, there’s still a tribute to those unsung “minor officials, who are competent, not corrupt … Anyone who understood would go for help to some comparatively lowly office run by a man or a woman who, if there were any justice, would be openly running the country and who in fact were what everything depended on.” Though, in the words of one character, there’s “the devil” in the fantasy of leftist utopianism referred to in the novel’s title, “The Sweetest Dream” is finally both an indictment of those who try to save the world and a paean to those who, against all odds, keep it from falling apart.
Our next pick: A Russian copywriter channels advertising advice from the ghost of Che Guevara