" encounter with a magnificent mind in artistic maturity": Doris Lessing's latest novel explores passion, ageing and the loss of "easy beauty" with new freedom
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DORIS LESSING's superb first volume of autobiography, Under My Skin, has a combination of intellectual fire and animal energy that establishes it both as a classic of the genre and a masterpiece about love. Her new novel, Love, Again, like the autobiography, takes its title from a popular song:

never wanted to ...

but also has an epigraph from Yeats:

One had a lovely face

And two or three had charm,

But charm and face were in vain

Because the mountain grass

Cannot but keep the form

Where the mountain hare has lain

The tone of wistfulness and passivity is at first surprising to a reader of this sometimes even frustratingly forceful artist. However it is not weakness that these little words herald here but, as we should have come to expect from Lessing, truth.

Love, Again is the story of two women separated by time, brought together by art. Sarah Durham is an educated widow of 65 who works in the theatre. She has moved into a serene stage of her life where she is able to concentrate undistracted upon work. Love and its attendant unmanning, she believes, is behind her. She has a delinquent niece, Joyce, whose near-mother she has been, accepting the responsibility delegated by her own tiresome brother, Hal, and his unhappy wife. She has satisfactory children of her own.

The other woman who dominates the book has been dead since 1912, when she drowned herself, although it might have been thought that her turbulent life was at last approaching a period of calm. Julie Vairon was a beauty from Martinique, gifted in writing, drawing and music, a free spirit living before her time. Lessing has succeeded in rendering this person whom we see through the double glass of a fiction-within-a-fiction as the book's liveliest spirit. Since the many characters in the novel are united and affected by her, this works well. Often in novels that take on this game of parallels and echoes it feels like technique, but, as is invariable with this author, her work denies almost the existence of technique. I can't think of a writer whose power is less affected by the often careless surface of her work. The priorities are so clear that one isn't more than troubled by the scratches on the glass. Indeed in Putting the Questions Differently, the absorbing and cleanly edited collection of interviews with her that Earl G Ingersoll provides, she declares - to Brian Aldiss - "I hate rhetoric of all kinds."

In Love, Again Sarah Durham commissions a play about the life of Julie Vairon. She meets Stephen Ellington-Smith, a rich amateur of opera, who runs a festival from his country house in the old-style Glyndebourne/current Garsington manner. Stephen is charming, attractive, intelligent and clearly damaged. He is in love with Julie Vairon, whose own amatory career had been passionate and bittersweet. One of the benefits of the solidity of Lessing's style is the trust the reader can repose in her. Stephen's love across time for Julie seems wholly believable. Of all the many love affairs in the novel, this is the subtlest, the most plausible and feels the most real. It's also tragic.

On the less mediumistic plane, Stephen has a wife, Elizabeth, who has a decisively practical but not matrimonially very soothing affair with the nanny/ housekeeper. I believed in this rather less, and in the three handsome blond sons of the marriage not at all. As for the apple-cheeked bantering countrywomen in the kitchen, that's science fiction.

Where this novel excels is in its attentive study of a group of people working together on a project, and the fertile ground for erotic confusion offered by such intense circumstances. There's real time, theatre time and love time. Actors fall in love with one another because they are pretending to, and because they are paid to look good and to be agents of the emotions of others. Lovers wish time to pass and then wish it to stop, careering sickeningly in its warps. All this Lessing conveys with the mass and force that come naturally to her.

The other cardinal accomplishments here are her remorseless analysis of indignity and mortification, and her conveying of the insistence of fate that each of us will be forced to enact what most we despise. The disgraces of age and the falling away of easy beauty are described in some of the book's best prose:

"There is absolutely nothing like love for showing how many people can live inside one skin."

"This fate of us all, to get old, or even to grow older, is one so cruel that while we spend every energy in trying to avert or postpone it, we in fact seldom allow the realisation to strike home sharp and cold: from being this ... one becomes this, a husk without colour, above all without the lustre, the shine."

It is when Sarah comes to love that I grow uneasy. Lessing's description of the incongruity and violence of her desire is immaculate, but its objects never come alive. It's one thing - and not unusual - to fall in love with an unworthy object; another to fall for someone who can't struggle off the page. Sarah goes mad for an actor, promiscuously narcissistic Bill; we believe the emotion, but Bill is just a ganglion of adjectives. Stephen romances a pair of actresses who interpret his adored Julie; we believe it because of the self-subverting misery of romantic love.

Other passions seethe, some with a novelettish simmer. A Kirk Douglas figure announces he is crazy for old ladies. We have some difficulty with that, as we should not have, for the polymorphousness of human love is a terrific subject and Lessing is assuredly one of the few artists up to it, on both the eidetic and metaphysical planes. Now that Naipaul has so publicly announced the death of the novel, we must resign ourselves to not having what would surely have been a masterwork from him on this. Only writers of such hard- won objectivity as these two could report valuably on simultaneously so noble and humble a feature of our condition.

Occasionally the bossy informative tone is too intrusive for this book's good, and there are strange interventions of neutral lecturing from an omniscient narrator who is not Sarah: "This is the real thing, the big D (as its victims jocularly call it when not in its power), it is the authentic, hallmarked one-hundred-percent depression."

With all its intermittent want of urbanity, this is a grand novel, boldly hewn, more literary than it declares, and yielding the occasional swooning glimpse of beauty. Doris Lessing is a writer it is impossible to stare down. Her own sentiments about what she calls the "literary squabble-shop" in this country are made very clear in several of the interviews reprinted from a wide variety of sources in Putting the Questions Differently. What strikes the reader of these interviews are the allied scepticism and profound good faith Lessing shows in answering for the nth time the old questions (Marxism, Sufism, Africa, women) and the brilliant attentiveness she possesses. The best interviews, as one might expect, are with other writers, notably Joyce Carol Oates, who makes an astute point about Lessing's "exploratoriness" being richer than superficial experimentalism, and Claire Tomalin, who asks simple, big, informed questions, and listens carefully to the answers.

Lessing disparages the cult of the celebrity writer and is at all times in these interviews vigilant against nonsense. It is her belief, with Tolstoy, that "the function of art is to make that understood which in the form of argument would be incomprehensible". Read together with Love, Again, these interviews constitute an encounter with a magnificent mind and temperament in artistic maturity, capable of turning her equal gaze on George Eliot, and of displaying the negative capability to make her belief that the "older I get the less I believe" a positive, concrete and humane one.

! Doris Lessing's `Love, Again' is published on Monday by Flamingo at pounds 15.99.

`Putting the Questions Differently: Interviews with Doris Lessing' ed Earl G Ingersoll, Flamingo pounds 7.99