Briefing for a Descent Into Hell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Briefing for a Descent Into Hell [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Doris Lessing.

Lessing Briefing for a Descent into Hell

This novel is beautifully written. I felt like it was very demanding of my attention, because although styles and speakers vary in the course of the text, there are no full page-stop chapter breaks. In the absence of dialogue, paragraphs tend to run for multiple pages, and the prose (sometimes breaking into poetry or incantation) has an insistent restlessness in keeping with its subject matter–especially in the first half, where a narcotized sleep is an ambivalent power for desired healing or feared imprisonment.

“I never learned to live awake. I was trained for sleep. Oh let me sleep and sleep my life away. And if the pressure of true memory wakes me before I need, if the urgency of what I should be doing stabs into my sleep, then for God’s sake doctor, for goodness sake, give me drugs and put me back to dreaming again.” (139)

This waking/sleep dialectic is one of the features that insinuates a mystical subtext throughout. Others include the intimation of people destined for companionship, the foreboding of illusion in consensual phenomena, and reflections on the urge to engender praeterhumanity in our children.

There are many different levels of storytelling involved, of which the outermost is a set of clinical notes and correspondence surrounding the hospitalization of a man with what seems to be traumatic amnesia. Within that setting are conversations, and within those are dreams and memories. In one dream an entire governance of the solar system is set forth as background to the protagonist’s sense of dislocation and urgency. In an unreliable memory, guerrilla warfare becomes the setting for a tragic encounter with idyllic nature.

Others have noted that this is a book worth re-reading, and I’m inclined to agree.