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LOVE, AGAIN, by Doris Lessing

by Kate McDonnell

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Love, Again is Doris Lessing's first novel in eight years. Fans will find a restatement of several of her familiar themes and the exploration of one or two new ones. Readers in general will find a complex novel whose most interesting passages are grim and whose relentless exposition leaves little to console. At 77, Lessing is pulling no punches.

Sarah Durham is, at 65, a moderately successful theatre producer. Her small London theatre is involved in the production of a show about Julie Vairon, a 19th-century writer and composer who was drawn from Martinique to France by an ill-fated love affair. The development and performance of the play, with its highly charged musical content, and its evolution from an intimate theatre piece to an obviously lush and overdone musical, is the background to a densely melodramatic story.

As the actors, writers and directors fall under the spell of Julie Vairon's music and her memoirs of unresolved love affairs, Sarah Durham wakes to a state of forgotten erotic potential. Widowed for 20 years, her children grown up, she has put her own sexuality on hold as theatre business and concern for an emotionally disturbed niece have absorbed her life. Troubled by Julie's troubadour music, haunted by fragments of memories of her own marriage, Sarah enters what Lessing calls "Julie's country," a mental state of readiness for love.

Sarah befriends Stephen Ellington-Smith, the affluent landed gentleman who is backing the theatre project, and finds that he has fallen in love with Julie Vairon -- hopelessly and deeply in love with a woman 80 years dead. Within a short time Sarah finds herself lusting after the handsome, androgynous young actor Bill, who is only 28, and who is flirting shamelessly with her as well.

Lessing takes big chances that her story will come off as farce rather than as the dead-serious account of human grief and sorrow that it is, and only by an act of iron will does she keep the book on track. Stephen becomes a tragic figure as Sarah's understanding and empathy for his state of mind deepen, but Bill, and later the young director Henry, for whom Sarah develops a more mutual but equally unrealized romance, remain flat characters whose purpose is to let Sarah explore the depths of unresolved passions. The seriousness of Sarah's introspection into her own pain and her own motives distracts from the question of a 65-year-old's attractiveness to young men, and the sheer agony of Stephen's situation keeps us from snickering at him.

There is no comforting resolution here. Even the people who get what they want, or think they do, are not guaranteed happiness. Stephen's wife in the arms of her lesbian lover, merry young American actors homeward bound to "meaningful relationships," ambitious Sonia's vicious courtship of the hapless young theatre critic, Henry with his small son--nobody provides any image of requited love that is bound for anything but eventual pain. In Sarah's voice Lessing probes the sources of that need and that pain:

One day the thought had popped whole and fully fledged into her head, as if it had been waiting there for her to recognize it: Am I really to believe that the awful, crushing anguish, the longing so terrible it seems one's heart is being squeezed by cruel fingers--all that is only what a baby feels when it is hungry and wants its mother? [...] To fall in love is to remember one is an exile, and that is why the sufferer does not want to be cured, even when crying, 'I can't endure this non-life, I can't endure this desert.'

The most searing parts of the book are Sarah's meditations on love and aging. This isn't new ground for Lessing, but it's a harsher view than she took in The Diaries of Jane Somers, written in the early 1980s. Janna Somers also struggled with love and aging and pain, and also had a niece that could barely fend for herself, but obviously Lessing felt she had more delving to do on the subject. And it's not comforting, any of it. The scene in which Sarah undresses for the mirror, remembering how she was and how she now is, "she has to insist that this is so, this is the truth: not what I remember: this is what I am seeing, this is what I am. This. This." -- is almost unbearably painful, and as a message from an older writer to younger readers, a dire insight that perhaps we'd rather not have.

The intersection of love and age is not a pleasant one, although not all of Lessing's meditations on age are as grim:

Somewhere about middle age, it occurs to most people that a century is only their own lifetime twice. On that thought, all of history rushes together, and now they live inside the story of time, instead of looking at it from outside, as observers. Only ten or twelve of their lifetimes ago, Shakespeare was alive. The French Revolution was just the other day.

One of Lessing's themes has been that sometimes people get damaged and cannot be fixed, and aging is a subset of this. But she is almost as fascinated by people who are unaccountably incompetent and helpless as by those whose instability can be explained by personal history. About Joyce, the niece in Love, Again, Sarah says: "Joyce had an 'I cannot cope' gene, or lacked an 'I can cope' gene, or had one in the wrong place, and her life had been governed by this. The puppet strings do not have to be psychological, though it is our inclination to think they are."

As with the title character in The Fifth Child, Lessing doesn't even try to explain what she thinks is the cause of such anomalies. She describes the characters and the situation and leaves conclusions or further theorizing to the reader. Lessing has been asking questions for a long time, questions which get down to the basics of who we are, how we are, how certain things come about within people and societies. When she doesn't have the answers she doesn't fake up a theory: as a novelist she is free not to do so. It's what makes her fascinating to read, if sometimes disturbing, irritating, even depressing at times.

In Love, Again Lessing has perhaps let the bones of her questions show through, skimping characterization for introspective analysis, but that's a minor weakness. The book is a strong message from a courageous older woman, a postcard from age to youth. Don't read Love, Again on a lonely rainy weekend when your resistance is low, but do read it.

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