Last night Doris Lessing, aged 88, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In her acceptance speech she recalls her childhood in Africa and laments that children in Zimbabwe are starving for knowledge, while those in more privileged countries shun reading for the 'inanities' of the internet
Saturday December 8, 2007
I am standing in a doorway looking through clouds of blowing dust to where I am told there is still uncut forest. Yesterday I drove through miles of stumps, and charred remains of fires where, in 1956, there was the most wonderful forest I have ever seen, all now destroyed. People have to eat. They have to get fuel for fires.
This is north-west Zimbabwe early in the 80s, and I am visiting a friend who was a teacher in a school in London. He is here "to help Africa", as we put it. He is a gently idealistic soul and what he found in this school shocked him into a depression, from which it was hard to recover. This school is like every other built after Independence. It consists of four large brick rooms side by side, put straight into the dust, one two three four, with a half room at one end, which is the library. In these classrooms are blackboards, but my friend keeps the chalks in his pocket, as otherwise they would be stolen. There is no atlas or globe in the school, no textbooks, no exercise books or Biros. In the library there are no books of the kind the pupils would like to read, but only tomes from American universities, hard even to lift, rejects from white libraries, detective stories, or titles like Weekend in Paris and Felicity Finds Love.
There is a goat trying to find sustenance in some aged grass. The headmaster has embezzled the school funds and is suspended. My friend doesn't have any money because everyone, pupils and teachers, borrow from him when he is paid and will probably never pay it back. The pupils range from six to 26, because some who did not get schooling as children are here to make it up. Some pupils walk many miles every morning, rain or shine and across rivers. They cannot do homework because there is no electricity in the villages, and you can't study easily by the light of a burning log. The girls have to fetch water and cook before they set off for school and when they get back.
As I sit with my friend in his room, people shyly drop in, and everyone begs for books. "Please send us books when you get back to London," one man says. "They taught us to read but we have no books." Everybody I met, everyone, begged for books.
I was there some days. The dust blew. The pumps had broken and the women were having to fetch water from the river. Another idealistic teacher from England was rather ill after seeing what this "school" was like.
On the last day they slaughtered the goat. They cut it into bits and cooked it in a great tin. This was the much anticipated end-of-term feast: boiled goat and porridge. I drove away while it was still going on, back through the charred remains and stumps of the forest.
I do not think many of the pupils of this school will get prizes.
The next day I am to give a talk at a school in North London, a very good school. It is a school for boys, with beautiful buildings and gardens. The children here have a visit from some well-known person every week: these may be fathers, relatives, even mothers of the pupils; a visit from a celebrity is not unusual for them.
As I talk to them, the school in the blowing dust of north-west Zimbabwe is in my mind, and I look at the mildly expectant English faces in front of me and try to tell them about what I have seen in the last week. Classrooms without books, without textbooks, or an atlas, or even a map pinned to a wall. A school where the teachers beg to be sent books to tell them how to teach, they being only 18 or 19 themselves. I tell these English boys how everybody begs for books: "Please send us books." But there are no images in their minds to match what I am telling them: of a school standing in dust clouds, where water is short, and where the end-of-term treat is a just-killed goat cooked in a great pot.
Is it really so impossible for these privileged students to imagine such bare poverty?
I do my best. They are polite.
I'm sure that some of them will one day win prizes.
Then the talk is over. Afterwards I ask the teachers how the library is, and if the pupils read. In this privileged school, I hear what I always hear when I go to such schools and even universities. "You know how it is," one of the teachers says. "A lot of the boys have never read at all, and the library is only half used."
Yes, indeed we do know how it is. All of us.
We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.
What has happened to us is an amazing invention - computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked: "What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print?" In the same way, we never thought to ask, "How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?"
Very recently, anyone even mildly educated would respect learning, education and our great store of literature. Of course we all know that when this happy state was with us, people would pretend to read, would pretend respect for learning. But it is on record that working men and women longed for books, evidenced by the founding of working-men's libraries, institutes, and the colleges of the 18th and 19th centuries. Reading, books, used to be part of a general education. Older people, talking to young ones, must understand just how much of an education reading was, because the young ones know so much less.
We all know this sad story. But we do not know the end of it. We think of the old adage, "Reading maketh a full man" - reading makes a woman and a man full of information, of history, of all kinds of knowledge.
Not long ago, a friend in Zimbabwe told me about a village where the people had not eaten for three days, but they were still talking about books and how to get them, about education.
I belong to an organisation which started out with the intention of getting books into the villages. There was a group of people who in another connection had travelled Zimbabwe at its grassroots. They told me that the villages, unlike what is reported, are full of intelligent people, teachers retired, teachers on leave, children on holidays, old people. I myself paid for a little survey to discover what people in Zimbabwe wanted to read, and found the results were the same as those of a Swedish survey I had not known about. People want to read the same kind of books that people in Europe want to read - novels of all kinds, science fiction, poetry, detective stories, plays, and do-it-yourself books, like how to open a bank account. All of Shakespeare too. A problem with finding books for villagers is that they don't know what is available, so a set book, like The Mayor of Casterbridge, becomes popular simply because it just happens to be there. Animal Farm, for obvious reasons, is the most popular of all novels.
Our organisation was helped from the very start by Norway, and then by Sweden. Without this kind of support our supplies of books would have dried up. We got books from wherever we could. Remember, a good paperback from England costs a month's wages in Zimbabwe: that was before Mugabe's reign of terror. Now, with inflation, it would cost several years' wages. But having taken a box of books out to a village - and remember there is a terrible shortage of petrol - I can tell you that the box was greeted with tears. The library may be a plank on bricks under a tree. And within a week there will be literacy classes - people who can read teaching those who can't, citizenship classes - and in one remote village, since there were no novels written in the Tonga language, a couple of lads sat down to write novels in Tonga. There are six or so main languages in Zimbabwe and there are novels in all of them: violent, incestuous, full of crime and murder.
It is said that a people gets the government it deserves, but I do not think it is true of Zimbabwe. And we must remember that this respect and hunger for books comes, not from Mugabe's regime, but from the one before it, the whites. It is an astonishing phenomenon, this hunger for books, and it can be seen everywhere from Kenya down to the Cape of Good Hope.
This links up improbably with a fact: I was brought up in what was virtually a mud hut, thatched. This kind of house has been built always, everywhere where there are reeds or grass, suitable mud, poles for walls - Saxon England, for example. The one I was brought up in had four rooms, one beside another, and it was full of books. Not only did my parents take books from England to Africa, but my mother ordered books by post from England for her children. Books arrived in great brown paper parcels, and they were the joy of my young life. A mud hut, but full of books.
Even today I get letters from people living in a village that might not have electricity or running water, just like our family in our elongated mud hut. "I shall be a writer too," they say, "because I've the same kind of house you were in."
But here is the difficulty. Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books.
I have been looking at the speeches by some of the recent Nobel prizewinners. Take last year's winner, the magnificent Orhan Pamuk. He said his father had 500 books. His talent did not come out of the air, he was connected with the great tradition. Take VS Naipaul. He mentions that the Indian Vedas were close behind the memory of his family. His father encouraged him to write, and when he got to England he would visit the British Library. So he was close to the great tradition. Let us take John Coetzee. He was not only close to the great tradition, he was the tradition: he taught literature in Cape Town. And how sorry I am that I was never in one of his classes; taught by that wonderfully brave, bold mind. In order to write, in order to make literature, there must be a close connection with libraries, books, the tradition.
I have a friend from Zimbabwe, a black writer. He taught himself to read from the labels on jam jars, the labels on preserved fruit cans. He was brought up in an area I have driven through, an area for rural blacks. The earth is grit and gravel, there are low sparse bushes. The huts are poor, nothing like the well-cared-for huts of the better off. There was a school, but like the one I have described. He found a discarded children's encyclopaedia on a rubbish heap and taught himself from that.
On Independence in 1980 there was a group of good writers in Zimbabwe, truly a nest of singing birds. They were bred in old Southern Rhodesia, under the whites - the mission schools, the better schools. Writers are not made in Zimbabwe, not easily, not under Mugabe.
All the writers travelled a difficult road to literacy, let alone to becoming writers. I would say learning to read from the printed labels on jam jars and discarded encyclopaedias was not uncommon. And we are talking about people hungering for standards of education beyond them, living in huts with many children - an overworked mother, a fight for food and clothing.
Yet despite these difficulties, writers came into being. And we should also remember that this was Zimbabwe, conquered less than 100 years before. The grandparents of these people might have been storytellers working in the oral tradition. In one or two generations, the transition was made from these stories remembered and passed on, to print, to books.
Books were literally wrested from rubbish heaps and the detritus of the white man's world. But a sheaf of paper is one thing, a published book quite another. I have had several accounts sent to me of the publishing scene in Africa. Even in more privileged places like North Africa, to talk of a publishing scene is a dream of possibilities.
Here I am talking about books never written, writers who could not make it because the publishers are not there. Voices unheard. It is not possible to estimate this great waste of talent, of potential. But even before that stage of a book's creation which demands a publisher, an advance, encouragement, there is something else lacking.
Writers are often asked: "How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand?" But the essential question is: "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas - inspiration." If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn. When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"
Let us now jump to an apparently very different scene. We are in London, one of the big cities. There is a new writer. We cynically enquire: "Is she good-looking?" If this is a man: "Charismatic? Handsome?" We joke, but it is not a joke.
This new find is acclaimed, possibly given a lot of money. The buzzing of hype begins in their poor ears. They are feted, lauded, whisked about the world. Us old ones, who have seen it all, are sorry for this neophyte, who has no idea of what is really happening. He, she, is flattered, pleased. But ask in a year's time what he or she is thinking: "This is the worst thing that could have happened to me."
Some much-publicised new writers haven't written again, or haven't written what they wanted to, meant to. And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears: "Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold on to it, don't let it go."
My mind is full of splendid memories of Africa that I can revive and look at whenever I want. How about those sunsets, gold and purple and orange, spreading across the sky at evening? How about butterflies and moths and bees on the aromatic bushes of the Kalahari? Or, sitting on the pale grassy banks of the Zambesi, the water dark and glossy, with all the birds of Africa darting about? Yes, elephants, giraffes, lions and the rest, there were plenty of those, but how about the sky at night, still unpolluted, black and wonderful, full of restless stars?
There are other memories too. A young African man, 18 perhaps, in tears, standing in what he hopes will be his "library". A visiting American, seeing that his library had no books, had sent a crate of them. The young man had taken each one out, reverently, and wrapped them in plastic. "But," we say, "these books were sent to be read, surely?" "No," he replies, "they will get dirty, and where will I get any more?"
I have seen a teacher in a school where there were no textbooks, not even a chalk for the blackboard. He taught his class of six- to 18-year-olds by moving stones in the dust, chanting: "Two times two is ... " and so on. I have seen a girl - perhaps not more than 20, also lacking textbooks, exercise books, biros - teach the ABC by scratching the letters in the dirt with a stick, while the sun beat down and the dust swirled.
I would like you to imagine yourselves somewhere in Southern Africa, standing in an Indian store, in a poor area, in a time of bad drought. There is a line of people, mostly women, with every kind of container for water. This store gets a bowser of precious water every afternoon from the town, and here the people wait.
The Indian is standing with the heels of his hands pressed down on the counter, and he is watching a black woman, who is bending over a wadge of paper that looks as if it has been torn out of a book. She is reading Anna Karenina. She is reading slowly, mouthing the words. It looks a difficult book. This is a young woman with two little children clutching at her legs. She is pregnant. The Indian is distressed, because the young woman's headscarf, which should be white, is yellow with dust. Dust lies between her breasts and on her arms. This man is distressed because of the lines of people, all thirsty, but he doesn't have enough water for them. He is angry because he knows there are people dying out there, beyond the dust clouds.
This man is curious. He says to the young woman: "What are you reading?"
"It is about Russia," says the girl.
"Do you know where Russia is?" He hardly knows himself.
The young woman looks straight at him, full of dignity, though her eyes are red from dust. "I was best in the class. My teacher said I was best."
The young woman resumes her reading: she wants to get to the end of the paragraph.
The Indian looks at the two little children and reaches for some Fanta, but the mother says: "Fanta makes them thirsty."
The Indian knows he shouldn't do this, but he reaches down to a great plastic container beside him, behind the counter, and pours out two plastic mugs of water, which he hands to the children. He watches while the girl looks at her children drinking, her mouth moving. He gives her a mug of water. It hurts him to see her drinking it, so painfully thirsty is she.
Now she hands over to him a plastic water container, which he fills. The young woman and the children watch him closely so that he doesn't spill any.
She is bending again over the book. She reads slowly but the paragraph fascinates her and she reads it again.
"Varenka, with her white kerchief over her black hair, surrounded by the children and gaily and good-humouredly busy with them, and at the same time visibly excited at the possibility of an offer of marriage from a man she cared for, Varenka looked very attractive. Koznyshev walked by her side and kept casting admiring glances at her. Looking at her, he recalled all the delightful things he had heard from her lips, all the good he knew about her, and became more and more conscious that the feeling he had for her was something rare, something he had felt but once before, long, long ago, in his early youth. The joy of being near her increased step by step, and at last reached such a point that, as he put a huge birch mushroom with a slender stalk and up-curling top into her basket, he looked into her eyes and, noting the flush of glad and frightened agitation that suffused her face, he was confused himself, and in silence gave her a smile that said too much."
This lump of print is lying on the counter, together with some old copies of magazines, some pages of newspapers, girls in bikinis.
It is time for her to leave the haven of the Indian store, and set off back along the four miles to her village. Outside, the lines of waiting women clamour and complain. But still the Indian lingers. He knows what it will cost this girl, going back home with the two clinging children. He would give her the piece of prose that so fascinates her, but he cannot really believe this splinter of a girl with her great belly can really understand it.
Why is perhaps a third of Anna Karenina stuck here on this counter in a remote Indian store? It is like this.
A certain high official, United Nations, as it happens, bought a copy of this novel in the bookshop when he set out on his journeys to cross several oceans and seas. On the plane, settled in his business-class seat, he tore the book into three parts. He looked around at his fellow passengers as he did this, knowing he would see looks of shock, curiosity, but some of amusement. When he was settled, his seatbelt tight, he said aloud to whomever could hear: "I always do this when I've a long trip. You don't want to have to hold up some heavy great book." The novel was a paperback, but, true, it is a long book. This man was used to people listening when he spoke. When people looked his way, curiously or not, he confided in them. "No, it is really the only way to travel."
When he reached the end of a section of the book, he called the airhostess, and sent it back to his secretary, who was travelling in the cheaper seats. This caused much interest, condemnation, certainly curiosity, every time a section of the great Russian novel arrived, mutilated, but readable, in the back part of the plane.
Meanwhile, down in the Indian store, the young woman is holding on to the counter, her little children clinging to her skirts. She wears jeans, since she is a modern woman, but over them she has put on the heavy woollen skirt, part of traditional garb of her people: her children can easily cling on to it, the thick folds.
She sends a thankful look at the Indian, who she knows likes her and is sorry for her, and she steps out into the blowing clouds. The children have gone past crying, and their throats are full of dust anyway.
This is hard, oh yes, it is hard, this stepping, one foot after another, through the dust that lays in soft deceiving mounds under her feet. Hard, hard - but she is used to hardship, is she not? Her mind is on the story she has been reading. She is thinking: "She is just like me, in her white headscarf, and she is looking after children, too. I could be her, that Russian girl. And the man there, he loves her and will ask her to marry him. (She has not finished more than that one paragraph). Yes, and a man will come for me, and take me away from all this, take me and the children, yes, he will love me and look after me."
She thinks. My teacher said there was a library there, bigger than the supermarket, a big building, and it is full of books. The young woman is smiling as she moves on, the dust blowing in her face. I am clever, she thinks. Teacher said I am clever. The cleverest in the school. My children will be clever, like me. I will take them to the library, the place full of books, and they will go to school, and they will be teachers - my teacher told me I could be a teacher. They will live far from here, earning money. They will live near the big library and enjoy a good life.
You may ask how that piece of the Russian novel ever ended up on that counter in the Indian store?
It would make a pretty story. Perhaps someone will tell it.
On goes that poor girl, held upright by thoughts of the water she would give her children once home, and drink a little herself. On she goes, through the dreaded dusts of an African drought.
We are a jaded lot, we in our world - our threatened world. We are good for irony and even cynicism. Some words and ideas we hardly use, so worn out have they become. But we may want to restore some words that have lost their potency.
We have a treasure-house of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans. It is all there, this wealth of literature, to be discovered again and again by whoever is lucky enough to come up on it. Suppose it did not exist. How impoverished, how empty we would be.
We have a bequest of stories, tales from the old storytellers, some of whose names we know, but some not. The storytellers go back and back, to a clearing in the forest where a great fire burns, and the old shamans dance and sing, for our heritage of stories began in fire, magic, the spirit world. And that is where it is held, today.
Ask any modern storyteller and they will say there is always a moment when they are touched with fire, with what we like to call inspiration, and this goes back and back to the beginning of our race, to fire and ice and the great winds that shaped us and our world.
The storyteller is deep inside everyone of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.
That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is - we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?
I think it is that girl and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.
© The Nobel Foundation 2007
'Writing is something I have to do'
Sunday October 14, 2007
So when, last Thursday, Lessing's name was read out among the gilt and mirrors of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, the gasps and whoops of surprise and delight were as much for a secretive organisation that had belatedly come to its senses as for the tough-minded octogenarian grandmother whom so many English readers above the age of 35 hold in such passionate regard. For them, indeed, this trophy is long overdue.
Forget Philip Roth, Claudio Magris and Milan Kundera, all of whom have been tipped often. Forget, too, that obscure Szechuan storyteller with the unpronounceable name published by Serpent's Tail or the Hayseed Press. Here is a great contemporary woman novelist and London intellectual who has dedicated her long life and impressive body of work to the tireless and unflinching exploration of man's (and woman's) place in the world, together with issues of race, gender and social justice. This prize finally acknowledges what has been true for at least 40 years: that she is one of the most important literary voices of her generation.
Lessing joins the Nobel club not only as its oldest ever winner but also with a prize-laden oeuvre spanning half a century in which English Nobels have been thin on the ground (Pinter joined a sparse Brit contingent two years ago) - or contentious (William Churchill in 1953; William Golding in 1983).
There are three essential phases to Lessing's colossal bibliography. First, in the 1950s, influenced by her youthful experience in Rhodesia as a committed communist, and after her famous debut with The Grass is Singing, she addressed radical and social themes in the Children of Violence sequence. (Revolutionary politics was a theme to which Lessing returned in 1985 with The Good Terrorist). The character of Martha Quest, a woman identifying herself as a rebel, became an icon of late Fifties fiction.
Second, in the 1960s, she began to explore states of mind, especially and most hauntingly, among women. In a spirit of daring realism she published The Golden Notebook, a masterpiece charting with arresting candour the inner life of Anna Wulf, another Lessing woman who wants to live freely. This often experimental exercise in postmodern fiction is, to her continuing irritation, now seen as a seminal classic of early feminism. 'What the feminists want of me,' she complained to the New York Times, 'is something they haven't examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is "Ha, sisters, I stand with you in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more". Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I've come with great regret to this conclusion.' Whatever the critical consensus on The Golden Notebook, it established Lessing as one of the giants of her time.
In the 1970s, after the publication of another experiment, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Lessing immersed herself in Sufism and science fiction and published a quintet of 'space fiction', Canopus in Argos, an exploration of a genre that provoked the critics to complain about the waste of her gifts, and drove her readers mad either with exasperation or obsessive joy. Indeed, her career went so badly in the early 1980s that she published two novels under a pseudonym, Jane Somers.
That was a typically contrarian move from Lessing, who says somewhere: 'Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself.' She retains a sublime indifference to conventional wisdom, literary or otherwise, and remains agreeably rooted in the everyday. She was visiting her son in hospital when the Nobel news broke and responded to the inevitable media razzmatazz with a characteristic blend of merriment and common sense. 'Oh Christ !' was her first response to the intrusion of television cameras, uttered with an unmistakable southern African twang.
With Lessing, laughter and wisdom go together and can be filed under the general heading: Nothing New Under The Sun. Lurking among her obiter dicta is the observation that 'laughter is healthy', and also her definition of happiness that 'all sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel heat strike the skin'.
As you might expect from a shamanistic writer, Lessing exhibits down-to-earth wisdom about the human condition. Of the old age in which she finds herself, she says: 'The great secret is that you really haven't changed in 70 or 80 years. Your body changes, but you don't change at all.'
That's an understandable verdict on life from a woman who has experienced most of the vicissitudes of the 20th century, from interwar depression to the Second World War, austerity Britain, the Cold War, then the counterculture and, finally, millennial globalisation. Lessing has seen it all. More surprising perhaps, from one who likes to confront humanity in all its exotic crookedness, is the modesty with which she downplays the role of experience in a life of extreme social and psychological fascination. She says she has been given 'every conceivable label. I started off as a writer about the colour bar, and then I was a communist, then a feminist, then a mystic'. And now? 'What I always was. Just the same.'
Like her two fellow English Nobel laureate contemporaries, VS Naipaul and Harold Pinter, Lessing is an outsider, the child of the British Empire. Born in Persia (as it was) in 1919, Doris May Tayler subsequently grew up on a hopeless farm in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her father was a traumatised Great War veteran; her mother a heartbroken expatriate who 'should never have left England'. She had virtually no formal education, dropped out at 14, and owed her childhood reading to her mother's foresight in ordering quantities of books from England.
Young Doris grew up hating Salisbury, Rhodesia, which she found to be a mixture of Tunbridge Wells and the Wild West, but found an antidote to boredom in Dickens, Scott, Stevenson and Kipling. 'I was just thinking about how to escape, all the time,' she says. She was married at 19 in a brief, and disastrous, flirtation with convention. Soon after, she walked out on her husband and two children to make a 'political marriage' to a German internee, Gottfried Lessing. In some interviews Lessing expresses remorse for this move but told The Observer: 'I'm very proud of myself that I had the guts to do it. I've always said that if I hadn't left that life, the intolerable boredom of colonial circles, I'd have cracked up and become an alcoholic, or had a mental breakdown.'
Lessing and her second husband parted in 1949 and she emigrated to England with her son Peter and the manuscript of her first book. She has worked in England ever since, moving house some 60 times. For the past 30 years she has lived in a rambling, pleasantly cluttered family house in West Hampstead, surrounded by her beloved cats, a favourite subject.
To those for whom last week's Nobel prize reintroduces this great English writer to their current reading, Lessing, now approaching her 88th birthday, is an appealing figure, and a deeply committed one. She says that 'writing is something I have to do. If I had to stop, I would probably start wandering the streets, telling myself stories out loud.' Lessing has an almost primitive view of her art and believes that narrative is hard-wired into our consciousness. 'I'm just a storyteller,' she says.
'I like her best when she's being bad-tempered'
In praise of a free-thinking, inspirational trailblazer
I'm absolutely delighted. When Harold Pinter won the prize in 2005 I was very worried that Doris wouldn't ever win it. My favourite work of hers is The Good Terrorist. I like her best when she is being bad-tempered or gets mad about something. I also love her novel Love, Again, about the dreadfulness of falling in love when you feel you've reached an age when you might be able to not do that again. It's a brilliant subject for a novel, and I can't think of anyone else who would have done it quite like that. It made me laugh in a sort of grim way when I read it. I always feel that about her books, of course: 'Ah yes, that's the next thing.' I don't really think she has influenced or affected many writers because what she does is so inimitable.
I think it's a wonderful accolade and very much deserved. Of the Nobel winners in recent years, she's the one who is probably most loved by readers around the world, with a huge readership outside the English language-speaking countries. And of course it is hugely overdue. I remember writing a Nobel letter for her 10 years ago. She was one of the people in the Eighties who broke out of the fiction form, rupturing the novel and breaking away from a realist idiom without ever losing her observational powers. She's constantly critical and sceptical about everything, which is what's refreshing about her. The sheer scope of her writing is worthy of an accolade too. Through The Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest series she charted women's individual experience. Quite a lot of American women's exploration fiction is indebted to her.
I'm absolutely thrilled. I can't think of anyone else who is more deserving; her back catalogue is just enormous. I remember finishing one of her novels on the bus and being so overcome with emotion that I immediately bought my mother some flowers. I can't remember what the book was or why the connection, but she has that ability to move. On another occasion I was up until 4am reading one of her books in my home in the remote Black Mountains and went for a walk afterwards as the sun was rising, and the two seemed to perfectly complement each other. And of course I love The Diaries of Jane Somers. I have adapted it for film, and I'm hoping that now it will get made. Apart from being a great storyteller, she's a great chronicler of her times, and of the human condition. I think her novels will be read in years and years to come.
She takes on themes - like climate change or racism - that in other people's hands would be wooden, and she turns them into amazing mythic narrative. She has that extraordinary ability both to plug into what's happening in the present and to put it in context. A lot of contemporary fiction seems incredibly shallow compared to hers. We don't have that many writers who are fearless and tough-minded, and that's what she is. I think she knows that she is a great writer and that probably helps her to write well.
I've only read some of Doris Lessing's short stories, but even in those her greatness shows through. She's unmistakably a great writer and I've met her a few times and she's personally loveable, which is a nice touch for a Nobel laureate. Through her political attitudes and courageous writing she's a socially responsible woman, dedicated to the idea of a better world. A short story of hers that stuck in my mind for a long time was about a dung beetle rolling a ball of dung. I always say if you write truthfully and completely about anything, you write at the same time about everything, which she did with this story. I congratulate Doris heartily and think she is most deserving.
Editor, The Reader
She should have won it back in the Seventies. She has been a very important influence for women of my generation, now in our fifties. I wrote to her after reading Shikasta and said 'Help! You've changed my life. What do I do?' I was a single mother in my twenties. Doris wrote back and said: 'You need to read books. If you don't have any money, I will help.' And she provided me with a list. She is a free thinker, a typical outsider, and these people don't usually get the establishment recognition they deserve. I really hope the effect of her win is that people revisit her back catalogue. Her early novels such as The Grass Is Singing are really superb and the Canopus in Argos books are also unduly overlooked. Although Lessing is comfortable with the term 'sci-fi', I think it's wrong to call her work genre fiction. Her work is about the experience of being a human in the 20th and 21st centuries.
She deserves to win for the impact she's had on women around the world, particularly in the Sixties and Seventies. She was writing about a new type of consciousness, when women were thinking about what it is to be treated as men's equals. Strangely and sadly, when feminism came along, she fairly early rejected it. Young feminists loved her, but she was not ready to love us. She came from a very different world where women's struggles were so much harder. This comes out in her later writing such as The Sweetest Dream as an enormous bitterness towards younger women. In the Sixties I rented a flat in Maida Vale that Doris had been living in. I was a rather young, bewildered single mother and I don't think she approved of people like me. But I have a friend who lived nearby who was sitting weeping on the doorstep one day because she couldn't pay her rent and Doris came across her and gave her some money, so she could also be very generous to younger women. She fostered Jenny Diski, of course. Even though she turned her back on the feminist movement, she continues to write about what it is to be a woman as she lives and ages. She is incredibly important, not only to women readers. She writes so personally, yet she can weave politics into it. Her writing is very moving and remains significant.
I like all her work but I love the science-fiction quintet. You don't really think of her as a stylist, because she's so interested in ideas, but those are books that have an incredible musical weight to them; they come at you in great waves. And The Good Terrorist really bangs a nail into the coffin of the far left in such an unanswerable way. People often react to her books in a fascinated but infuriated way. It would be a strange reader who could agree with absolutely everything Doris has said, but, God, you engage with her.
Interviews by Katie Toms and Ally Carnwath
INTERVIEW: DORIS LESSING
Bookforum, SPRING 2002
At eighty-two, Doris Lessing towers over the literature of the last half century. She has charted the lives and shaped the imaginations of successive generations with fiction that investigates the condition of women as well as the dynamics of political and sexual passion. She has dissected social movements, racial hatred, and madness, and has conjured future worlds bound by their own myths and religions. Lessing's new novel, The Sweetest Dream (HarperCollins, $26.95), takes us back into the '60s and examines three generations of women whose lives are threaded through recent British and African history. Their stories provide a vivid picture of lives distorted by dreams. I interviewed Lessing in her north London home, a rambling warren of books and papers. Delicate and clear-eyed, she has a sweet sagacity about her, but her impish wit still abounds, poised to puncture critical categories and cultural stereotypes. LISA APPIGNANESI
LISA APPIGNANESI: When I looked at your publications page in The Sweetest Dream I was struck by the sheer size of it—some two dozen works: long novels, collections of short stories, plays, operas. How have you managed such extraordinary productivity? Where does the inspiration come from?
DORIS LESSING: It's not inspiration. You see, I haven't done much else. I haven't had a vivid social life. And all kinds of circumstances have kept me pretty tightly circumscribed. What I've done is write. I used to have a very great deal of energy, which, alas, seems to have leaked away out of my toes somewhere. So I don't know. I'm just a natural writer. I can't imagine doing anything else.
LA: You say you don't do much else apart from write, yet you seem to have a wealth of ideas. Where do they come from? Do they soak into you from the streets?
DL: Yes, they do soak into me from the streets or anywhere. I was on the underground yesterday and I was watching a fascinating group of English girls, office girls I think, off to a party. And they are so smart. They were having such a good time. I was contrasting them with me at that age and also looking at how they were dressed. They might just as well have been in uniform. Their clothes were practically identical, and the knots on their scarves were identical. I think we are people who need conformity. And that set me off—I had a nice sort of plot appear in my mind and vanish again.
LA: When beginning a book, do you know what kind of book it will be? I know you dislike critical categories since they don't grow out of the actual writing, but do you know in the broadest sense if it's, say, a realist canvas?
DL: Oh, yes. I know exactly what I'm going to do. But, if you've ever actually analyzed a realist novel, "realism" does rather vanish doesn't it? I was listening to a reading of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice last night on the radio and thinking how her realism is set up so carefully. I mean, no science fiction writer could do it better than she does. Or Charlotte Brontë. That's supposedly realism. But, in fact, it's always on the verge of the grotesque, something impossible.
LA: Nonetheless, within literary convention, there are still differences between a fable or a tale and a realist canvas, a difference between say, The Golden Notebook and the "Canopus in Argos" series.
DL: I don't think like that. What happens is I get seized by the pleasure of an idea. There's a phrase for it. It's the "fine delight that follows thought." That's Gerard Manley Hopkins. Something happens, or you overhear something, and you suddenly get seized with the sheer pleasure of it. Critics don't understand that. They're always suggesting, for instance, that you wrote a book where you were influenced by Kierkegaard or someone. Instead, you were influenced simply by the pleasure, the delight of an idea.
LA: And the girls on the tube.
DL: Actually it was a Muriel Spark novel I was thinking of. She would like those girls.
LA: You've just been in terrible trouble for saying that feminism is all rot and that it went off in the wrong direction.
DL: The whole thing is a joke. I was in Edinburgh. There was one question about feminism, and I said what I was thinking at the time, which was that it had gone too far. And I told the story about this teacher telling her class of nine— and ten—year—olds that war was all the fault of the boys. You can imagine the result on the little boys, and the little girls were being so conceited. The Guardian journalist—The Guardian, as far as I'm concerned, is the pits—wrote an article quoting half of what I said, and she made up the rest. The trouble I got into was over supposedly saying that women now had parity with men in earnings. But in fact, I never said it. I couldn't possibly have said it. What a fuss. And the vitriolic letters I got from my ever–loving sisters. Anyway, I think I'm more of a feminist than they are because my agenda—equal pay for equal work, equal opportunity, and decent nursery provision—is one they haven't caught up with. My mentor when I was a girl used to quote this to us and say, until you've got this you haven't got equality with men. Nothing has changed. Where are the feminists out fighting for things like decent nursery provision? Nowhere. They're all up on stages somewhere.
LA: Can you give me a very brief history of your political passions?
DL: Well, the very first one, when I was growing up, was trying to change the racist situation for blacks in Southern Rhodesia. After that, I don't think that I have had passionate positions. I certainly didn't have one on feminism, because when I wrote The Golden Notebook, I had other ideas in mind.
LA: You were interested in the breakdown of belief in Communism.
DL: Yes. What I was writing about was extreme positions. It was about free women who broke down into madness, people who went crazy.
LA: Are you saying you didn't experience political passion, that you only watched that in others?
DL: No, I had about two years of the pure "being a Communist" in Southern Rhodesia. It disappeared very fast because I was married to a 150% Communist, Gottfried Lessing. That cures you very quickly. A man who would send you to Coventry for five days if you made a remark about Stalin. He didn't change at all his entire life. I read in one of the reviews of The Sweetest Dream that Comrade Johnny was a caricature. He's not a caricature. This is what they were like.
LA: The Sweetest Dream begins in the '60s, a period you initially described while you were living through it, in part of the "Children of Violence" sequence. You've come back to it now and judge it harshly. Do you think that your perspective has changed on what it was that the '60s were about?
DL: Well, I need to begin by saying that I have friends who were young in the '60s and say it was the most wonderful time that ever was, that I'm just being an old sourpuss and I don't understand how fantastic it was. But I was that particular '60s figure (like Frances, in the book): a house mother. These kids were in the most diabolical trouble, every one of them. Why were they? I mean they were probably the most privileged generation that ever existed. There never has been a generation that was so well off and so well clothed and so well fed. But the fallout was immense, and the people ended up in loony bins and committing suicide and have never got over drugs and so on.
LA: Why do you think that was?
DL: I personally think you cannot have two major world wars with all the horror of it and then say, OK, that's fine, enough, finished. Now we're going to be peaceful and happy. I don't think it happens like that. And all these kids had been children in the war or had fathers off fighting, or some of them had, you know, been close to the war. I think that in some deep psychological way the Second World War was working its way out in the '60s and '70s. Funny how we never talked about it. But it was a very, very violent time.
LA: You say in your author's note to The Sweetest Dream, "I'm not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people, which does not mean I have novelized autobiography." In other words, you're saying that this book exists instead of volume three of your autobiography. What's the difference?
DL: Well, take the '60s scene . . . They're all invented characters, some of them borrowed from other households, because you know I was not the only Earth Mother around. I didn't want to use people who were actually there, you know, who are friends of mine. It's not fair. But I hope I got the atmosphere of the '60s right. That's what I wanted to do. Now as for this hospital in Africa I visited, if I had described only what I saw with this particular doctor in the bush, it would be a kind of reporting. But I didn't. I married together that which I heard a great deal about and saw with a trip I made in the company of an old—fashioned Catholic priest and a new—fashioned nun who was a feminist and hated the pope, and mixed all this together and made it part of a novel.
LA: Do you think when you transform this real experience into fiction you end up marrying more qualities and characteristics, that you end up with a more "typical" experience than if you had stuck to the strictly autobiographical truth?
DL: Yes. See, I could have described a trip for, I think it was a week, in the company of my priest and the nun up to these wild places, and it would have made a very entertaining account, believe me. Can you imagine this scene, this old—fashioned priest listening to this nun carrying on about the pope? "Well, yes, sister. But I cannot help feeling that you are not taking all the factors into account. . . ." I could have done that. But if you mix it all up like a syrup pudding, you get a different feel to it.
LA: Comparing your autobiographical volumes to the new novel, do you think the way you use memory is different from the way you employ imagination?
DL: Yes. For the autobiography I worked hard trying to remember what really happened. Until I sat down to write, I had never thought about the subject. I just assumed, well, I'd remember it all. Then it suddenly occurred to me just how much one's parents put memories into one. So I spent enormous amounts of time asking, Did that really happen or did I make it up? I think my memories are more or less true but, you know, it's very interesting if you keep a diary how you can look back and see the difference between what you saw happen and what memory has made of it.
LA: Did you keep a diary for this period?
DL: I didn't keep a diary—I had notes of various kinds. I'm pretty well certain about most of it. But the real question that bothered me is that autobiography is supposed to be your life. But you can't possibly write it all, otherwise you'd write millions of words. So you cut out whole rafts of people, scenes, and events. How can this be true? You have to choose, just like writing a novel. Out this goes, out that goes.
LA: Do you have a particular favorite among your books?
DL: Yes. I think the two books that are likely to, certainly short term, be remembered are The Grass Is Singing and The Golden Notebook. The Grass Is Singing because it was such a period piece of its time, and The Golden Notebook because it was also so much of its time. But I'm wondering about the others, you see, because I think—well what would The Fifth Child look like fifty years from now? I just don't know.
LA: In The Sweetest Dream you show how Africans who have been educated here then go back to Africa and take bits of Englishness with them, either in distorted or in good ways. You've created this wonderful picture of Zimbabwe, of idealism going astray.
DL: Oh, it's so politically incorrect. My God. The response has been a stunned silence. First I have all this business about the character Sylvia being so white. The facts are, right, black men are fascinated by white women. And one of them told me, "Doris, you know that every black man's dream when he comes to England is to get into bed with a white woman and stroke that long, blond hair." This book is just about as politically incorrect as it could be, I'm delighted to say.
LA: Yes, it reminds me of your saying that the thing feminism hadn't given us was a sense of our own ridiculousness.
DL: Well, you know, God, that was a time. You see, I just feel I'm very glad that period went by. Switch this off and I'll tell you a funny story.