Doris Lessing Reflects on World, Change
Saturday, October 7, 2006; 11:15 PM
LONDON -- For more than 20 years, author Doris Lessing has lived on a quiet block in North London, in a brick Hampstead house among a row of such homes, as straight and steady as a line of toy soldiers.
Long favored by artists and intellectuals, her neighborhood is an ideal mix of solitude and activity, just a short, uphill walk from shops and cafes and busy, curving streets, a place that on this warm afternoon could convince you the world is but one long coffee break. The 86-year-old Lessing knows better.
"It's extremely affluent around here and people just take it for granted," she says. "I don't remember anything like this when I first came to London."
She has known many homes before living here: A country house in Persia (now Iran), a farm in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), a boarding house in South Africa, cold water flats around London. She has married twice, raised three children, watched this city rise from the dust of World War II, looked on in shock as the great truths of her youth _ apartheid, Communism, Nazism, the British empire _ all vanished.
"When you look at my life, you can go back to the late 1930s," she recalls. "What I saw was, first of all, Hitler, he was going to live forever. Mussolini was in for 10,000 years. You had the Soviet Union, which was, by definition, going to last forever. There was the British empire _ nobody imagined it could come to an end. So why should one believe in any kind of permanence?"
The author of the classic "The Golden Notebook" and more than 40 other works, including an upcoming novel, "The Cleft," Lessing can be a severe figure in her author photos, with her gray-white hair pulled back in a bun, dark eyes set in a cold stare as if engaged with the gravest matters.
But in person, she is warmer, a casual presence who rises at 5 each morning to feed the birds who gather by a nearby reservoir. Interviewed recently in her living room, Lessing wears a plain blue dress as she brings out two glasses and a 64-ounce, plastic bottle of Diet Coke. She settles on a well-used sofa, in a flat that could be described as vintage bohemian: furniture old and low to the ground, books scattered throughout like so many ashtrays after an all-night party.
"She's an intrepid soul," says fellow author Margaret Atwood. "She's a very good writer and she's had a very interesting life."
Born Doris May Tayler in 1919, she was a contrarian child with a mantra of three short, stubborn words: "I will not." Books, not grown-ups, were her best companions. As a girl, she read "The Secret Garden," biblical tales, Rudyard Kipling, history books about Napoleon, the Crusades, and Benjamin Franklin and Charles Dickens, whom she chose against the advice of the nuns in her convent. By age 10, she had written a one-act play featuring Shakespearean monarchs.
"I didn't go to school much, so I taught myself what I knew from reading," says Lessing, who dropped out of school at age 15.
Not long after moving to London, she debuted as an author in 1950 with "The Grass Is Singing," a short novel set in South Africa about a white woman's terror of a black servant, and soon followed with three of her autobiographical "Children of Violence" novels: "Martha Quest," "A Proper Marriage" and "A Ripple From the Storm."
In 1962, she released "The Golden Notebook," her most famous and influential work, the story of a writer's divided selves _ political, literary, sexual _ that sold millions of copies and anticipated the uprising to come with its declaration that "every time one opens a door one is greeted by a shrill, desperate and inaudible scream."
"It's a touchstone book for my generation, and for a lot of women of every generation," says Kate Millett, the 72-year-old feminist and author of "Sexual Politics," "Flying" and several other books.
"When I read it, I remember thinking, `This is a book I've always wanted to read,' something about the perseverance of the character and the fact she had good women friends. I think I wanted to live inside that book for a while when I read it."
Lessing herself has long denied that "The Golden Notebook" was written for the liberation of women. During the interview, she cites an early line in the novel _ "everything's cracking up" _ as a message well beyond the breakdown of traditional male-female relationships. Referring to the book's nonlinear structure, she calls it "a way of looking at things from all different angles and not just from the straight and narrow."
Unsentimental about men, Lessing has been attacked by critic Harold Bloom for her "crusade against male human beings." But she is just as tough on women, whom she often presents as equally capable of kindness and malice, reveling in their appearance and their ability to attract men.
"I think a lot of romanticizing has gone on with the women's movement," she says. "Whatever type of behavior women are coming up with, it's claimed as a victory for feminism, doesn't matter how bad it is. We don't seem go in very much for self-criticism."
In her work, and in her life, she assumes nothing, considers all sides. She sees herself as a particular kind of person _ living in a certain time and place _ who could have easily turned out differently. Her books have been influenced by Communism, Sufism and science fiction, but two contradictory impulses show throughout: to demonstrate that nothing is permanent; to insist that nothing really changes.
"Mara and Dann" is set in a future of endless war and flight. "The Fifth Child" shows how a sensible, affluent British couple sustains its lifestyle through the birth of four children, only to be destroyed by the fifth. In "Memoirs of a Survivor," an educated British woman cares for a teenage boy as the country collapses into anarchy.
"Quite a few people think it wouldn't take very much to return to a few warrior bands, with a few breeding women," Lessing says. "Our society is dependent on some precarious mechanisms, and they are very dicey. They can easily collapse."
For a brief time, Lessing imagined she could have the best of fate, when she joined the Communist Party in Rhodesia, and again in London. She had been inspired, she later wrote, by the idealism of the mid-20th century and by being around people "who read everything, and who did not think it remarkable to read."
"Some of them were marvelous people and they tended to be very good at analyzing the problems of their own society," she now says. "But they talked absolute rubbish about international affairs and the Soviet Union. I left the party (in the 1950s) when everybody else did, as it became evident that the Soviet Union was a very bad place."
Through literature, and politics, she came to know some of the leading thinkers and artists of her time. Her encounters include a warm visit with Betty Friedan ("a good Jewish mother, we got on like anything"), a contentious meeting with a young Henry Kissinger ("a harsh, abrasive aggressive force") and an amused get together with Allen Ginsberg and some fellow Beats.
"They turned up in London, a whole lot of them, and I went to meet them," she recalls. "I thought they were extremely likable, but this isn't how they wanted to be seen. I thought then, and I think I was right, that they weren't as frightening and as shocking as they wanted to be. They were mostly middle-class people trying to be annoying."
Lessing doesn't write every day, she says, but works often enough to publish at least one book a year and complete the occasional review or essay or short story, an uncommercial art form she cherishes like so many antique coins. Lessing's next novel, "The Cleft" _ its title a reference to female genitalia _ is her latest report on the "attitudes" between the sexes.
"I saw a science magazine which said that the basic human type is female and that men came along afterward," she explains. "You have an original community of females, on a seashore, very conventional. Then, one gives birth to a baby boy and somehow the boy manages to grow up.
"So I've written a story based on this. I have it all told by a literary Roman senator _ an aristocrat, very reactionary _ discussing the very violent revolutionary, and evolutionary, changes.
"I noticed that my typist at the publishing house was shocked by some of the words I used. I can't wait to see what people make of it. Some people will hate every word of it; it's not politically correct."