Whenever I talk about Doris Lessing, I tend to become a little incoherent with sloppy infatuated love, and talk about her I do, a lot, to anyone who is reluctantly cornered and can’t get away.
I first encountered Doris Lessing when I read The Golden Notebook at twenty-one. I was typically twenty-one (or at least, typically immature). I flailed around repeating mistakes, and was dithery and ignorant on matters political. Lessing advised in her autobiography to read whatever takes your fancy, ignoring fads and discarding the books you can’t get on with, because the right ones will find you at the right time. Or rather, you’ll find the ones that you need. So it was with the Golden Notebook.
The novel follows divorced single mother Anna Wulf, living in 1950s London, as she faces up to her belated disillusionment with Communism and her struggle to leave ‘The Party’, her writer’s block, a diffused and prolonged heartbreak as the (married) man she loves slowly leaves her, and her journey through breakdown, to the other side. But there’s so much more to it than that. Lessing offered a new structure for the novel, in a series of connected, accumulating fictions. She also mentioned a tampon for perhaps the first time in English literature, and, through a scintillatingly brutal examination of sexual politics, brought the attention of feminists (something she fought against, as this attention threatened to drown out everything else that the novel is).
For an immature twenty-one year old, the book had specific personal resonance. It was the first time I’d encountered an author who took individual experience – messy emotions, ungallant behaviour – and analysed them, coldly, ferociously, meticulously. There was a thrillling mix of a detached, serious eye and a heartfelt significance given to Anna’s turmoil.
This book spelled out for me that it is possible to look at oneself, and others, in a completely new way: trying hard to engage with your own intelligence, looking carefully, and, crucially, reflecting on what you see. She grew me up a little bit. It’s not rocket science. But it was a small revelation at the time. (Like I said, I was pretty immature.)
Of course the book is famous for precisely this depiction of the shattering of wholeness that I found so exhilirating. As in the theme of mental breakdown, so in the structure of the novel (the protagonist compartmentalizes her life into notebooks, which are then, she hopes, to be brought together as she reaches wholeness again, in the final, golden notebook).
There is a railing against complacency, hypocracy, the lure of nostalgia (a dangerously self-indulgent refuge from life), intellectual laziness, the mindless switching off from the world that is so tempting when bad news stacks up. Basically, it was like someone came along and gave me a shake and told me I could do a lot better. Through the medium of a literary masterpiece of the 1960s.
I’ve since made my way through about half of her spectacular, surprising, invigorating work, and it’s a lifelong love affair. I’ve learnt so much, about politics and the personal foibles and choices that can affect the collective whole; homegrown terrorism in 1980s London; the claustrophobia and stagnation of the status quo; dancing and drinking with the RAF in 1940s colonial Africa… different worlds. She has shown me that a person, and a writer, and a famous writer at that, can be curious and unafraid, resilient, unpretentious, unashamed of being for so many years a literary outsider, and tirelessly hell-bent on asking difficult, uncomfortable questions about why humans aren’t better at life. She also loves cats.
Reasons she’s a bonafide champ:
1. When she had reached the point of achieving consistently great reviews and great sales (in the 1980s) she decided to publish a novel under an unknown name, as a ‘debut’ author, to see if a) anyone knew it was her, and b) the book got the kind of rave reviews she had previously enjoyed. On both counts the answer was no, and the literary establishment were very pissed off indeed when the mischievous pseudonym was unveiled as the literary darling they’d been lavishing praise upon. They felt tricked. Lessing didn’t care. She maintained that she was making the point that her work had begun to be judged on her famous name rather than on merit, that progress will be slow if new authors and artists are shunned for merely being new, and that, generally, literary critics don’t know what they’re talking about.
2. After so many successes, she followed her intellectual developement into the realm of science fiction, which seemed to have alarmed critics and readers alike. Why would a respected ‘literary’ author choose such a disrespected, slightly silly subject? Lorna Sage puts it beautifully: “We encounter our fears, our futures, only in fiction we don’t respect”. To Lessing it seemed obvious: progress was only possible in this area of fiction that was unrestricted and free. “To see ‘them, us, the human race’ from an alien viewpoint […] is to lose your inhibitions about radically alternative views of progress”. (p.65, Doris Lessing by Lorna Sage).
3. She’s human. As well as having written some books which she later tried to kill off because she was so disappointed with her efforts, Lessing has also said that marriage was not one of her ‘talents’, and that she once went on a trip to Paris in which she bought a ludicrously expensive French hat which she took home and never wore. Lady after my own heart. In her autobiography there is also a heartbreaking and brief insight into an affair that she had when she was a single mother living in London in the 1950s (as in art, so in life). On holiday in Spain together, she ran into the sea one night, got caught in a wave and smashed her teeth against the rocks of the sea bed. There’s something so tender and sad about this love from so long ago recounted, the illicit madness and passion of their holiday together, and the strange, startling moment in which she nearly drowns in the sea, at night, and comes home with war wounds.
4. The footage of Lessing being told she’s won the Nobel Prize is an absolute joy to watch. (You can see it here). Journalist trying to get a good quote: “It’s a recognition of your life’s work…” etc. Doris Lessing: “Well there you go, you’re saying it all for me. Congratulations” *pat pat*.
5. She reminds me a little bit of the little old lady in Belleville Rendezvous. Wouldn’t it be a better world if all our greatest minds looked like the little old lady in Bellevile Rendezvous.