Retreat to Innocence, Doris Lessing, Michael Joseph Ltd, 1956, 334 pp
It could be that 1956 was just cursed. It took me forever to read the list of books for this year and hardly any of them excited or impressed me. Retreat to Innocence lacks the power of Doris Lessing's first two novels.
Set in London rather than South Africa, it tells the story of an affair between Julia, a young woman who is bored with her life, and Jan Brod, who is a writer, a Jew, a communist and an expatriate of Czechoslovakia. Julia, feeling unloved by her current boyfriend Roger, had taken to frequenting a coffeehouse where Jan Brod hung out. She rather throws herself at Brod and ends up becoming his lover, though he is much older and doesn't love her anymore than Roger does.
So the summer moves slowly along as does the story. Julia has very little understanding of herself, life around her, or Brod. The whole affair is doomed. In the way of spoiled young women, she comes to the end of the affair unchanged though she has been exposed to new ideas and realities.
I finished the book unsure of Lessing's point. Was she trying to show the shallowness of British people or the double standards of British immigration policies or the sad failures of communist idealism or what? Lessing has done all she could in later years to suppress the book, claiming that it is too sentimental. In fact, I had a hard time finding it. Perhaps someday when I read her autobiographies, I'll find out why she wrote and published it at all.
(Retreat to Innocence, as I mentioned, is hard to find. It was not even in any of my libraries. It can be ordered from used booksellers on-line.)