I know I have a tendency from time to time to go off on one about the mistaken assumption of the Millennial Generation that those of us who were born in the 1940s and 50s have somehow had things easier than them, but it was brought back to me this week when I read an interview that Doris Lessing gave before her death in 2013. In it she said: “ There were no cafés, no good restaurants. Clothes were still ‘austerity’ from the war, dismal and ugly. Nobody had any money. … That’s what people don’t understand now. Nobody had anything. We didn’t bother about it. It wasn’t a question of suffering in any way. We weren’t suffering from this modern itch to possess more and more and more.”
I have to confess that I have never particularly enjoyed Doris Lessing as a writer. (I find her work turgid, which is my problem not hers.) Perhaps it was because I came to her late, only picking up on her work with the science fiction of the ‘Canopus in Argos’ series of novels in the 1980s and then working back to the earlier, better, African books. Shallow as I am, it was only after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature that I made a serious effort to understand her and read the two autobiographies: ‘Under My Skin’ and ‘Walking In The Shade’.
‘Walking In The Shade’ particularly resonates, starting as it does in 1949 and carries through to 1962, which covers my childhood and adolescence. Most of it covers events that I remember and experiences that I shared. However, as a vehicle through which I could get a greater understanding of Lessing, it is a failure, and that is in large part due to the approach she takes to her subject. It’s a bit like that of her character Klorathy in ‘The Sirian Experiments’ : ”I saw on the wall, quite as clearly as one does with ordinary vision – but as it were distanced and speeded up, so that what I was seeing was both exactly accurate, a true representation of actual events, and yet encapsulated, and simplified -a series of pictures, or visions, that drew me forward into them so that it was almost as if I was more a part of the events I watched than a spectator of them.’’ (See what I mean about turgid?)
She divides the book into four parts, each set in one of the four houses she lived in between 1949 and 1962. Then she fills these with disjointed sequences of memories and cut-way sections, (The Zeitgeist, or How We Thought Then), in which she attempts to analyse what were the driving forces at any given moment in time, and an over emphasis on the intellectual life in Britain during the Cold War. All of this told in a seemingly unedited rush of words which ultimately becomes difficult to read.
That latter statement is ironic because, in an other interview, she said that: ”All writers go through the stage when what we write is nearly good: the writing lacks some kind of inward clinching, the current has not run clear. We go on writing, reading, throwing away not-quite-good-enough work, and then one day … the process of writing and rewriting has at last succeeded.’ If her finished books are heavily self-edited, I shudder to think what the earlier drafts were like.
If you can cut through the haze of obfuscation which her style generates, her story, though out of the ordinary, is actually quite straightforward. Lessing was born in Tehran, in what is now Iran, where her father worked in banking. When she was six the family moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She married at 19 and had two children in quick succession. The marriage did not last and in 1943 she divorced her husband, Frank Wisdom. Leaving the children with Frank, she met and soon married Gottfried Lessing. They had a son. Again the marriage didn’t last. In 1949 she divorced Lessing, and this time taking her young son, left Rhodesia for London. Later, when asked how she could have left her other two small children behind, she said that looking after small children for days on end was not the business of an intelligent woman. “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.” She added that she would not have been very good at child care and she would have ended up, like her mother, a frustrated intellectual.
What she was really saying was that she wanted to focus on writing and that the kids were getting in the way. She had written a number of short stories and, by the time her marriage to Gottfried Lessing ended, she had written her first novel ‘The Grass Is Singing.’
It is at this point that ‘Walking In Shade’ begins. Having left behind her childhood home in Africa, the thirty-year-old Lessing enters a drab, poor, bomb-damaged, war-weary London to begin a new chapter in her life.
In Rhodesia she had been considered to be a left-wing radical. In Britain she was immediately put under surveillance by MI5. (Her file, running to five volumes, was made public in 2015, two years after her death.) For many years she was an active member of the Communist party, CND and the Anti-Apartheid movement. She struggled to keep afloat, lodging in slummy houses, renting cheap flats, selling her mother’s jewellery, living hand to mouth. She did not marry again, but had a series of affairs. They all ended in misery. “Why did I get involved with men who made it quite plain that they had no interest in being faithful or sticking around? But I did, and one of them was the love of my life, no doubt about that. I think I had a deep fear of being trapped in a relationship.”
But it was writing that she devoted her life to. Between her arrival in London and her death, she wrote over 50 novels, 19 short story collections, 8 books of essays, 5 volumes of autobiography, 4 books on cats, 2 books of poetry, 2 plays and even one graphic novel and an opera libretto. By any standards, prolific.
Of the novels ‘The Golden Notebook’ is generally cited as the most important. Published in 1962 it said things about women’s lives that were still taboo subjects, not to be discussed in polite company. It made enormous waves. As the Feminist movement developed through the 60s and early 70s, it was hailed as one of the key documents of the movement. Lessing herself always protested that it was not a feminist piece. Nevertheless, it is an insightful work exploring the relationships between men and women, politics, social class, mental illness, loneliness and lust.
One wonders what she would have made of the febrile world we currently live in following Harvey Weinstein and his sexual shenanigans. After all it was her view that ”contemporary women scream or swoon at the sight of a penis they have not been introduced to, feel demeaned by a suggestive remark and send for a lawyer if a man pays them a compliment.”
Because of ‘The Golden Notebook’, Lessing, perhaps against her own preference, became a cult, (though there is more than a suggestion that she fostered that herself: she believed that her insight and her talent were unique and she let everyone know it). Having said that, she herself had a sceptical approach to cults : “In the 70s I was walking across Central Park when I saw a man in a dressing gown sitting cross-legged on the grass, surrounded by people. And I asked my friend. “Who is that chap?” She said, “That man started coming up to Central Park at lunchtimes for a break as regular as clockwork and he always sat down on the grass in some kind of robe. Before long people gathered and sat around him. He became known as the silent guru.” Every day people appeared and sat with him through the lunch-hour for his ‘silent benediction’. He never opened his mouth. He never said a word. Then summer ended, and no one sat on the grass any more. Apparently the man himself was immensely tickled by the whole thing. That’s how easy it is to create a legend and a cult!”
It also meant that her books started to sell in large numbers. Critics began to make asinine remarks like: “Mrs. Lessing is the great realist writer of our time, in the tradition of the major Continental novelists of the 19th century, particularly Stendhal and Balzac, but also Turgenev and Chekhov.” Honours were offered and refused (she turned down both an OBE and a DBE). Awards accumulated, culminating in the Nobel prize in 2007. Famously she was out shopping for groceries when someone told her that it had just been announced that she had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Arriving home to a gathering of reporters, she exclaimed, with typical modesty: “Oh Christ! I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I’m delighted to win them all. It’s a royal flush.”
For me, the problem is that the iconic status which she achieved led to a sort of critical deficit. Each new book was hailed as a masterpiece. Even the most tortuous, convoluted and unreadable were hailed as “an experimental work in the very best sense” by critics like Joyce Carol Oates. In my reading of the books, particularly those after ‘The Golden Notebook’, she seems to have a dark, ungenerous, unforgiving view of human nature. The characters are not people, but cyphers. She refuses to recognise them as individuals, but uses them as mere counters in her narrative. Frequently that narrative is bombastic, even pompous, and the text over extended to the point of congestion and, in the reader, creates indigestion. In these books she endlessly restates her conviction that humankind is a sorry lot. Fair enough, but not much of an insight, and one that countless other writers have done both more succinctly and with greater compassion. As J.M. Coetzee wrote in his review of these books: “With the best will in the world, she cannot get to the bottom of why she did what she did.”
But my view is not the prevailing view, so I will end with the Nobel citation: “with scepticism, fire and visionary power (she) has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny. … Her writing is characterised by penetrating studies of living conditions in the 20th century, behavioural patterns, and historical developments.”
Or maybe not.