Josna Rege

135. Doris Lessing and Me

In 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, Books, Britain, Childhood, Education, Inter/Transnational on January 15, 2012 at 6:42 pm

britannica.com

In a 1957 essay, Doris Lessing—the writer whom I love the most in the whole wide world and admire with a non-critical, unacademic passion and an utter lack of detachment—wrote, “the novelist talks as an individual to individuals, in a small personal voice.” Doris Lessing (or DL, as I refer to her affectionately) is one of a handful of writers (Salman Rushdie and Anita Desai being a couple of the others) who, when I read them, seem to be talking directly and personally to me. As I read her work, I enter a state of total identification, even in the rare cases when the critical side of my brain registers a tiny bit of dissonance.

I first encountered Doris Lessing in 1974 when I was 19, living on my own for the first time and taking a year off from university in the U.S. to be an “Occasional Student” (yes, that was an official category) at University College London. A large part of my motivation for studying abroad that year was simply to have a reason to be in London. Besides reading every contemporary novel I could get my hands on, I spent hours just walking through the city at all hours of the day and night (along the way picking up and working my way through a hot soggy packet of chips, sprinkled generously with salt and doused liberally with malt vinegar). Later, when I read her 1960 memoir, In Pursuit of the English, Doris, newly arrived from Southern Africa, walks through London in the same way, seeking to understand her parents and to make the city her own. Although London—North London, the borough of Camden, to be precise—was my mother’s native place and the place where my parents had met and married, I had never yet lived there as an adult; neither had Doris Lessing, who was 30 by the time she first set foot in the land of her parents’ birth.

Among the novels I read in 1974 was The Summer Before the Dark. Still a rebellious teenager, I was unable to fully take in the weariness and frustration of a middle-aged housewife, but I recognized something in the novel and sought out more. When I spoke of it to Lily, my mother’s best friend from babyhood and a voracious and discriminating reader, she scoffed at it, saying that it was nothing compared to Lessing’s 1962 masterpiece, The Golden Notebook; which I read, dutifully, and again, took in only partially at the time. But I kept returning to DL, gravitating toward her 5-volume bildungsroman, Children of Violence—especially, at first, the four volumes set in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when the young protagonist, Martha Quest, was growing up and establishing her independence. (Later, the fifth novel in the series, The Four-Gated City, set in London, would catch me in its grip and I would return to it again and again.)

Back in the States, I decided to write my senior thesis on Doris Lessing. A mistake, no doubt, given my wildly partisan passion for her work, her own deep distaste for academia, and my university’s complete cluelessness about contemporary fiction (at the time their English department taught nothing written after the Second World War and very little written after the First).  As a result, although I read just about everything by DL down to the last review (and that was a tall order, given that since 1950 she had supported herself and her son entirely through her writing) and the few bits of criticism that existed on her by that time, I was not equipped to write a critical essay on my idol, especially since my ideas kept getting wider and deeper the more I delved into the body of her work, through Briefing for a Descent into Hell and culminating in her 1974 novel-cum-spiritual-autobiography, The Memoirs of a Survivor. (Incidentally, 1975, the year I was writing my thesis, had been declared International Women’s Year; rumor had it that the Nobel Prize for Literature was going to be awarded to a woman, and that DL was on the short list. As it turned out it was not until 2007, thirty-two years later, that she was to be awarded the prize.)

The final weekend before my thesis was due was my own personal descent into hell. All week long I had burned the midnight oil night after sleepless night. Then, literally at the eleventh hour, I arrived at a new insight into DL’s work culminating in The Memoirs of a Survivor, which, although it did not invalidate my thesis up to that point, superseded it and to my mind rendered it inconsequential. I was faced with the choice of delaying the completion of my degree by six months in order to write a new thesis or finishing up willy nilly, with an inferior product that would merely get me through. To my shame, I chose the latter.

That last night took on a nightmare quality. As I wrote wildly, scrawling more and more illegibly, my friend Leighton typed and another friend, Joel, proofread, editing freely as they went. After some time Leighton, in his understated, mildly amused way, registered a note of concern that I was “starting to ramble.” Sure enough, as I was writing my vision had become blurred and, as if mimicking Memoirs of a Survivor itself,  the walls of the room had become fluid and were dissolving and swirling in a pattern that I could not quite grasp. I pushed on, disregarding Leighton’s cautions, and the next morning found me proofreading, whiting out, and correcting before running to Gnomon Copy in Harvard Square to get the thing photocopied and bound before the noon deadline. Just before I left the house I realized that I didn’t yet have a title. In desperation, I snatched one out of thin air: “Vision and Division in the Works of Doris Lessing.” That inspired title was probably the best part of the thesis, which I haven’t been able to bring myself to read since.

In the decade that followed, I read each of her novels as soon as it was published, devouring it like a starving person. I loved her space fiction series, Canopus in Argos: Archives (five novels, like The Children of Violence), more than anything that had come before; and while people who had cut their teeth on The Golden Notebook bewailed the death of the old Lessing they had loved, I delighted in Lessing’s old themes swirling ever-wider, out, out into the universe and back inwards deep into the human psyche and the collective unconscious. My favorites in that period were, and still are, Shikasta—in my opinion her masterpiece—and The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five.

photo by Linda Haas

In April, 1984, just before I realized that I was pregnant with Nikhil, Doris Lessing came to Boston. I went eagerly to BU to hear her speak with my friend Linda, who photographed her for a local feminist magazine (Sojourner, I think it was): she did not disappoint. A few people, though, appeared to be disgruntled, and asked a variant of the question so many had asked before and have gone on asking since: “Why did you stop writing all those lovely novels about the relationships between men and women (and the unspoken, “Why don’t you return to writing them again?)? Her bemused reply: “But I never stopped writing them. What was The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five if not a novel about the relationships between men and women?”

Thirteen years later, in 1997, when I had completed my graduate studies and had taken up a teaching job, DL came to Boston again, to a packed auditorium at the Boston Public Library. I made the pilgrimage from New Hampshire to see her and to hear her read from Walking in the Shade, the second volume of her autobiography. At the very end of the long question period, someone asked her which of her more than fifty works was her favorite. Looking completely bewildered, she replied: “I don’t see them as separate works. In my mind, I’ve only ever written one book.”

In Walking in the Shade, DL writes of buying her first house in Somers Town, a working-class neighborhood of North London between Euston Station and Mornington Crescent. I know Somers Town as the neighborhood where my cousin Susan lived for many years and where my maternal grandmother was born. Later, as her writing brought her financial stability, DL was able to move to the house where she lives now, in the West Hampstead/Kilburn area within walking distance of Hampstead Heath, where my mother and her brothers grew up, and, as I said earlier, where my parents met and where I was born. In 2002 my parents took a rare trip to London together to visit family, and stayed near Parliament Hill, just a few blocks from the Heath. Upon her return, Mum presented me with a tea cozy from Kenwood House and told me that she was sure she had seen Doris Lessing striding over the Heath with a younger man—perhaps her son? I am sure it was she, for one of her stories, “Sparrows” (in The Real Thing) is set at Kenwood, and in a 1999 interview with Jonah Raskin, she said that she went for long walks on the Heath three or four times a week. I like to think of DL and my mother almost-meeting on the Heath, that part of London Mum loves best (and therefore, that I love best as well, one of my earliest memories being rolling down a long grassy slope that must have been Parliament Hill). I like to think, too, that she has walked many a time by my Aunt Bette who, her agemate at 91, still likes nothing better than her weekly ramble over Hampstead Heath, ending up at Kenwood House with a bite to eat and a nice cup of tea. (On second thoughts, Auntie Bette may like her Sunday roast better, but if so, the Heath comes a close second.)

Like my very dearest friends, DL shows me the way not only by treading the path before me but by her example, exposing my hypocrisies, daring me to do better work, reminding me to be true to myself. Dear Doris Lessing, fear not isolation in your old age, for you have given expression to the Substance-of-We-Feeling through which all human beings are joined in one great endeavour; and fear not that you have been forgotten, for you are already an Immortal. Your glorious oeuvre tells the story of my life, and that of many, many others.

Photo by Chris Saunders (nobelprize.org)

In 2008 at the age of 89, Doris Lessing  published Alfred and Emily, which she declared to be her last book. It is eloquent, experimental, of a piece with everything she has ever written. For in it she first tells the sad story of her father and mother, the one she has been telling and re-telling in one way or another all along, and then generously imagines for each of them what their lives might have been like had it not been for the catastrophe of the Great War. Generously, I say, for in imagining happy lives for her parents, she does not envision them marrying each other, and therefore, she, Doris, is not born. Selfishly, I am deeply grateful that her parents did meet and marry. Whether they were happy or not, I maintain that the day they met was an auspicious one, for it gave us one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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  1. Lovely.
    Jo, when I was 21 or 22, my sister handed me the first of the Martha Quest series, and I was stunned. I still hold that reading that series, and The Golden Notebook, to be among the most important experiences in my life. Your fidelity to Doris Lessing is very moving.
    Thanks for this one, very much.
    Ann

    • Thank you, Ann. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about DL, have we? Surely we must have, for weren’t we working together at the Press in the Spring of ’84 when she came to Boston? But perhaps not. I don’t know too many people who’ve read the whole Children of Violence series. Would love to revisit them with you sometime, since I’m sure they would read very differently now. x J

  2. Yes, actually, I do remember you going over there with Linda! It would be so interesting to re-read Children of Violence. Many images and passages come back to me. They come couched in an unforgettable feeling of opening up a world of possibility to me. In those books I was encountering such a full-fledged, astute, distinctly female writer. What a time in my development to hear her expansive and powerful and unpretentious voice! It was really singular and formative…I’m awfully grateful to her.

    • You’re absolutely right about her voice, Ann.
      I think I may have doubles of the Children of Violence series and could send them in with Dan to get to Mark on a Thursday night. What if we re-read them one at a time? What do you think? I haven’t done that for years. We could go back and forth over email, totally at our leisure. If it’s too busy now we could do it in the summer. . .

  3. This really inspires me to want to read Doris Lessing. Thank you for your passionate, moving review. I will write more soon with pictures from Belize where I am at present! 🙂

    • Wow–a comment from Belize, thank you!! I will be delighted to advise you on what to read by Doris Lessing once you return. Until then, enjoy your visit to the fullest! Love, J xo

  4. Dear Josna: Thanks for sending this to the DLS folks. We all have various similar stories to tell! I heard Lessing reading in her local W. Hampstead bookstore–a tiny, intimate space–a few years back. She was still a beautiful woman . . . Robin

    • Thank you for your message, Robin. Several of our DLS friends and colleagues have sent responses to me by email, but you are the first to comment here on the blog. I had suspected that many of us would have similar stories (many of us having longer and closer associations than I do with her work and with Doris Lessing herself), and hoped that mine would resonate and evoke some of those memories.

  5. I couldn’t agree more. I love her, and think she is one of the best writers (the best for me undoubtedly) we have. So glad I came across this blog. Also, you posted a young picture of her. Thank you!

  6. Thank you for your comment! It’s such fun to hear from a fellow-Doris Lessing fan. (And yes, she’s beautiful as an wise old woman but wasn’t she lovely when she was young? Her keen intelligence and love of life shine through in every photograph.) Best wishes, J

  7. Doris Lessing is one of my favorite writers too. I first read the Martha Quest books. The last one didn’t really seem to fit with the others, although I liked it and it made me wonder about my great aunt who talked to people who weren’t there. My very favorite, though, is Shikasta, followed by The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five.

    • Oh my goodness, Kristin, you are really a woman after my own heart! You are almost the only other person I know who loves Shikasta best of all. I think it is her epic masterpiece. And I adore The Marriages of Zones Three, Four, and Five. One of those times when I went to see her she said that she had written The Marriages at a time when she was feeling low, as a kind of therapy to restore a sense of balance.

      • Josna, I was going to add that you were the first person I found that liked Shikasta, you might be the first person who read it. I recommend it but don’t think my husband took me up on it. As a hermit, I don’t have a chance to talk about literature much.

        • Anytime you want to talk about literature, especially Doris Lessing, I’d welcome it. Have you read her Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)?

        • I did read Memoirs of a Survivor, long ago. I discovered her when in the 1970s when my mother send me the Martha Quest books. I even wrote her a long letter after I read the 5th in that series 😀 She never answered, although I checked the mailbox hopefully for months. We were living at the end of a dead end road outside of Charleston SC with two small daughters at the time. Since then, I’ve read all the early stuff and much of the recent, I think I’ll check and read what I haven’t.

        • I’m really surprised that she didn’t write back, Kristin, because I believe she was very faithful about responding to readers’ letters. I wish you had received a reply, since I’m sure it would have meant a lot to receive it, especially at that time in your life, fairly isolated and with small children. I know what it feels like to write a letter and wait in vain for a reply.
          Let me know what you haven’t read (if you’d like): I could make recommendations. Have you read _The Fifth Child_? dorislessing.org is a good site for a complete annotated listing of all her work, and more.

        • I did read 5th Child. I’ll go look at the page and see what I haven’t read. I remember one about a sister and brother in…Egypt? or somewhere. One of short stories about a grandmother and her grandsons friend? or her grandson? There was one about cats I may still have but never read. Or it may have been lost in a move. I’ll go look at the page. The more recent ones (obviously) didn’t stay with me like some of the other’s. I thought it was interesting to read “The singing Grass” it was so bad (I thought) compared to her later books, that it gave me hope that I might one day write something. Which I haven’t, but still.

        • First of all, Kristin, if you have the urge, why not try your hand at some fiction? Or some “creative non-fiction,” that new genre that you’re already on the edge of. You’re already such a fluent and prolific writer—I love your style.
          And yes, you’re thinking, perhaps of Mara and Dann, and the sequel The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog. They’re long and drag in parts, but the story is a fascinating one. The Grandmothers is a novella in a collection of the same name. Recent, typically edgy and provocative DL. And I love Particularly Cats.

        • I used to write fiction, mostly in a story-rounds. The only thing I’ve been writing lately is the blog and I think that your suggestion of Creative Non-fiction is a good one. I’ve been thinking about what to do with all the information I have on the blog and I think I need to begin doing it (whatever “it” is).

        • I like “whatever ‘it’ is”! DL has an extended reflection on the meaning of “it” in _Memoirs of a Survivor_. Of course, you’re already doing it, as the writer of such a terrific blog. Maybe you can look at the entries, or strings of entries, that are already pointing the way toward a new direction, rather than thinking of it as something different,

        • Another thought: DL’s last work was Alfred and Emily. Half is fiction, the other half non-fiction. In it, she imagines what her parents’ lives would have been like for each of them if the First World War had not happened. And she tells us what it actually was like. Very moving work,and it strikes me that it might give you some ideas for a new form of your own.

        • And I am always making up in my head “what ifs” I’ll get the book today.

          What I’m planning to do is use what I’ve written on the blog and put it together. There are several different threads there and I think I will start with my life. Doing the streets/places I’ve lived gives me a good start. Everything happened in one of those places.

        • I like the idea of organizing it by the streets and places where you’ve lived. It puts me in mind of Pat Barker’s first novel, Union Street, actually a collection of linked short stories. The characters in each of the stories live in a different house of the street, and as you read, a picture begins to form in your mind of the cast of characters and their relationships to each other.

        • There are a lot of books in the list I haven’t read! I’ll have to make a list and figure it out. Thanks for the website.

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