Volume 24 - Issue 21 :: October 20 - November 02, 2007
In Lessing’s world
[Scroll down to Item #3 for Doris setting the record straight on Bush Jnr, Tony Blair, and US preciousness re September 11]
By UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA
At 87, Doris Lessing becomes the oldest person to win the Nobel Prize in Literature as well as only the 11th woman to do so.
Doris Lessing addressing the media outside her home in north London on October 11 after winning the award (SHAUN CURRY/AFP)
ANNOUNCING the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2007, the citation from the Swedish Academy described Doris Lessing as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”.
Lessing, who turns 88 on October 22, is reported to have responded to this news in her typically matter-of-fact style: “Oh, Christ, I couldn’t care less.” Not only is she the oldest winner (last year’s winner, Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, was 54), she is also only the 11th woman to have won the prize since its inception over a hundred years ago. She is also probably one of the very few school dropouts to be awarded the prize. No wonder she could not care less.
After all, as one of the most important literary voices of the century, Lessing has been in the running for the Literature Nobel for decades. By now, she has been everywhere and seen it all, and she mentions this with characteristic bluntness: “This has been going on for 30 years. I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I’m delighted to win them all, the whole lot, okay?”
Growing up as a child in colonial Africa (where her mother tried to recreate an Edwardian lifestyle for the family), later becoming a Communist party member and then being declared a prohibited alien in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, Lessing should know something about the collapse of governments and empires. She was born Doris May Tayler in Khermanshah, Persia (now Iran), in 1919, to British parents. Her father, who had been crippled in the First World War, was a clerk in the Imperial Bank of Persia; her mother had been a nurse. They had met at the hospital where Captain Tayler was recovering from his leg amputation. Six years after Doris’ birth, the family moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to take up maize farming. While her mother adapted to the new life, her father did not, and the farming venture, for which the Taylers had bought a thousand acres of land, failed.
This continent of desperate contrasts was the setting of much of her writing, including short stories such as “The Story of Two Dogs”, a disturbing tale of loneliness, unrequited yearnings and the wild. It drew from unhappy childhood memories; its dark and painful mood trying to warn children about the world that they were all going to grow up in.
Dropping out of convent school, Lessing read hungrily from the books that came regularly by post from London. These – especially the 19th-century novels – and her father’s war memories filled her early imagination. An autodidact, she taught herself about the world, about ideas and about the freedom that comes with forming one’s own ideas: “With a library you are free, not confined by temporary political climates. It is the most democratic of institutions because no one – but no one at all – can tell you what to read and when and how.”
She ran away from home at 15, working first as a nursemaid and then as a telephone operator, learning about sexuality while trying to write short stories for publication. Married at 19 to Frank Wisdom, she had two children before she left home again. One of the central concerns in her early writing would be the gap between women’s potential and the dreariness of their actual lives. Soon she was drawn to the Left Book Club, a reading group of Communists, where she met and married the German-Jewish Gottfried Lessing, one of the group’s members, with whom she had a son.
Lessing has described her deep suspicion of political movements and the simplifying tendencies of ideologies: “All political movements are like this – we are in the right, everyone else is in the wrong. The people on our own side who disagree with us are heretics, and they start becoming enemies. With it comes an absolute conviction of your own moral superiority. There’s oversimplification in everything, and a terror of flexibility.” Her disillusionment with the Communist movement came in the postwar years, and she formally left it a few years thereafter.
Following her second divorce, she moved with her son to England in 1949. She would remain in this country from then on. The publication of her first novel, The Grass is Singing, a tragic story about complicated divides of race and class, came with this move.
Lessing’s life thus far had already provided her with several enduring literary concerns: feminism, social justice, states of mind, the peace movement and a belief in the need for “ethical judgement” in every aspect of life – and the question of how to present these concerns within novels that draw deeply from her own life. These themes are best reflected in the five semiautobiographical novels of the “Children of Violence” series, set mainly in Africa and published through the 1950s, which followed the awakening of their protagonist, Martha Quest, to an uncompromising vision of freedom. Together, the novels formed a 20th-century version of the 19th-century Bildungsroman and presented the reader with questions of how to make choices, how to be political, how to live.
In 1962, appeared the tour de force for which Lessing is still best known, The Golden Notebook. In this ambitious narrative experiment, the novel follows the life of Anna Wulf, her experience in the world around her, her complex inner life and her attempts to integrate the different directions in which her thoughts wander, and the different notebooks in which she stores them, into one coherent whole. “There is no way of putting this sort of knowledge into words. Yet, these moments have been so powerful, like the rapid illuminations of a dream that remain with one waking, that what I have learned will be part of how I experience life until I die,” notes Wulf.
Lessing felt that the novel was not saying anything different from what women felt all the time across the world: “The Golden Notebook for some reason surprised people but it was no more than [what] you would hear women say in their kitchens every day in any country.” Apart from generations of women who read the novel and recognised themselves in it, the feminist movement heralded the work as a literary manifesto, prescribing it in universities and claiming Lessing as an icon of feminism – so much so that the novelist, who has spoken about her dislike of the idea of making “oversimplified statements about men and women”, called the novel her “albatross”.
Always interested in presenting ideas in varied narrative styles, Lessing began to turn her gaze elsewhere. An interest in Sufi mysticism and the relationship between individual and collective destiny led her literary directions to shift gradually in the 1970s and the 1980s from social realism into the realm of different fantasies, from what she called “inner-space fiction” with Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) to the language of dreams with Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and to science fiction and fantasy with the series titled Canopus in Argos: Archives (1979-1983). A return to the theme of revolutionary politics came with The Good Terrorist (1985), which A.S. Byatt has described as her favourite of Lessing’s novels (“I like her best when she is being bad-tempered or gets mad about something.”). This was followed by The Fifth Child (1988); in the same decade, Lessing decided to publish two novels under the pseudonym Jane Somers: The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could... (1984).
The first volume of Lessing’s autobiography, Under My Skin, which tells the story of her early life from her Rhodesian childhood to her move to England, appeared in 1995. The following year saw the publication of her first novel in seven years, Love Again. This is a richly beautiful tale about creativity, grief, and love – which Byatt describes as “the dreadfulness of falling in love when you feel you’ve reached an age when you might be able to not do that again”.
Walking in the Shade, the second volume of Lessing’s autobiography, was published in 1997 and traces her life from her move to England in 1949 up to the publication of The Golden Notebook. She announced in 2001, with her inimitable frankness, that she did not particularly care to write a third volume.
Finally, even as Harold Bloom derides Lessing’s selection for the Nobel as nothing more than “pure political correctness” and describes her recent work as “fourth-rate science fiction”, Lessing’s latest novel, The Cleft (2007), depicts women as lazy and men as adventurous – to the great irritation of literal-minded feminists. Clearly, her irreverence and creativity (“Laughter is by definition healthy,” she has said famously) continue to explore new frontiers, forcing her readers to think things through for themselves. Typical for a writer whose enduring plea to her readers has always been: “Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself”
Page 6 Sunday Herald published Saturday October 23 2007
London ~~ Wednesday October 24 2007
Lessing angers America by saying September 11 'was not that terrible'
By Emily Dugan
Doris Lessing, the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, has risked incurring the wrath of Americans by accusing them of overreacting to the 11 September attacks on the Twin Towers, which she said were really "not that terrible".
Comparing the al-Qa'ida attacks – which killed almost 3,000 people – to the IRA's late 20th-century campaign – in which an estimated 2,000 were killed over three decades – the outspoken British author said that Americans were "naive" in thinking that the tragedy was unique.
"11 September was terrible, but if one goes back over the history of the IRA, what happened to the Americans wasn't that terrible," she told the Spanish newspaper, El Pais. "Some Americans will think I'm crazy. Many people died, two prominent buildings fell, but it was neither as terrible nor as extraordinary as they think." Lessing, whose 57-year career was praised this month by Nobel judges for the "scepticism, fire and visionary power" of her work, also said of the Americans: "They're a very naive people, or they pretend to be."
The author, who celebrated her 88th birthday on Tuesday, recalled the seriousness of the Provisional IRA's Brighton bomb attack on Margaret Thatcher's government during the 1984 Conservative Party conference. It narrowly missed the Prime Minister, killed five others and injured 34.
"Do you know what people forget? That the IRA attacked with bombs against our government," said Lessing. "It killed several people while a Conservative conference was being held and which the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was [attending]. People forget."
The prize-winning author, who has always taken a strong stance against political injustice, also lashed out at the leaderships of Tony Blair and George Bush. "I always hated Tony Blair, from the beginning," she said. "Many of us hated Tony Blair. I think he has been a disaster for Britain and we have suffered him for many years. I said it when he was elected: 'This man is a little showman who is going to cause us problems.' And he did."
Lessing, whose book The Golden Notebook inspired a generation of feminists, did not have much kinder words for the present occupant of the White House.
"As for Bush, he's a world calamity," she said. "Everyone is tired of this man. Either he is stupid or he is very clever, although you have to remember he is a member of a social class which has profited from wars."
Her criticisms were not limited to the West. Born in 1919 in the city of Kermanshah, in what is now western Iran, she said of the current regime in Tehran: "I hate Iran. I hate the Iranian government. It's a cruel and evil government. Look what happened to its president in New York. They called him evil and cruel in Columbia University. Marvellous! They should have said more to him. Nobody criticises him, because of oil."
Lessing has always been highly political – she was an avowed communist after the Second World War. Among her 15 novels are The Golden Notebook and The Grass is Singing, which deal with political and sexual taboos, weaving them into complex narratives.
Speaking at the Hay Festival in June this year, she said that freedom to write and say what you thought was very important for an author. "We are free... I can say what I think. We are lucky, privileged, so why not make use of it?"