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Briefing for a Descent into Hell Hardcover – 15 Apr 1971

4.0 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd; First Edition edition (15 April 1971)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0224005073
  • ISBN-13: 978-0224005074
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 13.6 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,810,966 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Touching and beautiful." --"The New York Review of Books""A brilliant and untamed image of the possibilities that may still constitute man's destiny." --"Time""An excursion into private consciousness . . . ending up in the darkest reaches of the unconscious at its most primitive." --"The Washington Post Book World"

About the Author

Doris Lessing was born of British parents in Persia in 1919 and taken to South Africa at the age of five. She spent the rest of her childhood on a large farm in Southern Rhodesia. At the age of eighteen, she became a telephone operator in Salisbury where she had, she says, 'the kind of compulsive good time described in Martha Quest'. In 1949 she came to London bringing with her the manuscript of her first novel, The Grass is Singing. Published the following year, the book was an outstanding success in Britain, in America and in ten European countires. Her subsequent novels have inlcuded the five-volume Children of Violence series (1952-69) and The Golden Notebook (1962). Reviewing this last book, the Sunday Times called Doris Lessing 'not only the best woman novelist we have but one of the most serious, intelligent and honest writers of the whole post-war generation'. She is also the author of such short story collections as The Habit of Loving (1957) and of non-fiction books ranging from Going Home (1957) to Particularly Cats (1967). The Observer wrote of her: 'There can't, I suppose, be anyone left who reads modern fiction at all and isn't aware of the importance of Doris Lessing's work, with its strenth, its sobriety, its fine integrity.'

Customer Reviews

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
When I first began this novel, I had little idea of the nature of the subject matter, and was immediately plunged into a seething whirlpool of my own confusion and the tumultous journeying of the narrator himself. I quickly became entranced, and the book remains a favourite. Why? Mainly, it's a stimulating book. It encourages the reader to challenge his/her own assumptions about mental illness and creativity, and includes a glorious leap from the expected literary prose to unexpected and inspired science-fiction speculation about the origins of life on Earth. How could one not be fascinated?! Lessing's prose is beautiful and well-paced , and her characterisation is as always acute and sensitive. The narrative is enthralling, and the narrator is entertaining and deeply sympathetic. Not once was I bored in reading it.
One point that perhaps should be mentioned is that the novel has been condemned by several psychiatric professionals for its apparent glorification of mental illness. Yet, in my reading, I would argue that the sheer inventiveness and beauty of the prose alone renders the novel superior, adn that such a reading fails to take these qualities into account. However, it is possible that some readers may find their enjoyment tempered by similiar considerations. Nevertheless, I loved the book, and would highly recommend it!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've read quite a bit of Lessing now and so far this is one of my least favourite. That is not to say that 'Briefing for a Descent into Hell' is not interesting, provoking, structurally impressive, and very, very powerfully written, but I did not find it an enjoyable read. I've read plenty of horror fiction that tests the strength of one's stomach but Lessing's depiction of the 'rat-dogs' will haunt me for a long time i think! This novel resembles 'The Fifth Child' far more than her other works on mental illness, such as 'The Golden Notebook', 'The Four-Gated City' and 'The Summer Before the Dark'.

I do recommend this book but for those interested in representations of mental illness, R. D. Laing's work, and inner-space fiction, rather than those looking merely for a pleasureable read.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A man is admitted to hospital. There is nothing with him to tell the authorities his name, his age or his address. Later, a wallet is found - no money, but his address is now available and relatives are contacted. But the nature of his illness seems ambiguous. He is extremely loquacious, and appears to believe that he is floating on a boat in the sea. He lies awake all day and all night, hallucinating this inner vision and he has to be moved to a small observation room so he doesn't disturb other patients. His rambling pronouncements continue unabated as he imagines himself in the sea, on a journey of some kind. The writing here is breathtakingly lyrical and beautiful, but nothing makes any sense to those listening. Dr Y, and Dr X, alternate with various treatments, but nothing seems to help and the majority of the book consists of his rambling stories of travel in an unearthly place. Hell, one supposes. Strange beings are all around him. Gorgeous as this story is, it is disjointed and strange. He meets Gods, he meets Soldier, Clerk, Gardener and Teacher and he meets blood drinking women. Monkeys plague him and strange yellow creatures show him a path.

Towards the end of the book he seems to recover some of his memory, or some facet of it, and he tells a tremendously affecting story of being airlifted into some mountains where he joins a group of young Yugoslav soldiers in WWII. Though by now, they know he never went to Yugoslavia during the war. He is a lecturer of historiography, it appears, and he had an unexceptional, though particularly hard war in France. Though it is all fantasy, his sojourn with the young soldiers is the best part of the book, albeit all too short.

While all of the writing has power and often beauty, I felt strangely detached.
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