Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Doris Lessing

“We are free... I can say what I think. We are lucky, privileged, so why not make use of it?”

Doris Lessing, who died last month, was a formidable writer of astonishing fecundity. In a career spanning almost six decades Lessing produced more than fifty works of fiction and non-fiction (not including poetry, drama and opera).

I remember watching on the BBC Lessing’s reaction when, in 2007, she became only the 11th woman to win the Nobel Prize of Literature in its history.  She had returned from doing her shopping and was ambushed on the doorsteps of her house by reporters.  The news apparently took Lessing by surprise. Her reaction was one of nonchalance (without being arrogant), almost as if she was accepting the chair of a local committee for organizing Christmas fete, at the insistence of church members, who, she knew, were offering her the position for no reason other than the deference to her great age. Lessing was 88 when she won the Nobel and became the oldest recipient of the Nobel Prize. If I remember correctly, she even made a tongue in cheek reference to her age, speculating that the committee probably decided to award her the prize because they were afraid that she was not long for this world.

Lessing’s parents were English—her father’s name was Alfred Taylor while her mother’s maiden name was Emily McVeagh. In her last published book—part fiction and part memoir—entitled Alfred and Emily, which, I thought, was very moving in parts, Lessing drew vivid portraits of both her parents, whose lives, she believed, were indelibly scarred by the First World War. In the first half of the book Lessing imagined her parents’ lives as they might have been had the Great War had not happened. The second half depicted their lives as they were, in Southern Rhodesia where Lessing grew up. In this book Lessing gives a list of books she read while growing up, which makes an interesting read: Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, Black Beauty, Greek Myths for Children, Kipling’s novels and short stories, Beatrix Potter’s  books, Huckleberry Finn, and Little Women were some of the books which were on young Lessing’s reading list.

Lessing pursued different themes and experimented with different genres in her writing: from grim realism to fantasy and paranormal to science fiction.

I have not read as many of Lessing’s novels as I have been meaning to over the years. Below is a list of five of my favourite Lessing books.

The Grass is Singing

Lessing described it once as her first real novel. It is also my most favourite Lessing novel, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century in my view. It tells the harrowing story of an obsessive love affair between a lonely white farm-owner’s wife in the apartheid era South Africa and her black servant, with fatal consequences. Not a word is otiose in this novel, which, when it finishes, leaves the reader feeling great sadness for the human condition.

The Golden Notebook

Lessing’s greatest novel according to many. (An obituary said that even if Lessing had written nothing else Golden Notebook would have ensured her place in the history of literature.) Divided into four ‘notebooks’ (or sections) the novel tells the story of Anna Wulf, a novelist struggling with a writer’s block, and her breakdown. The novel was hailed by many as a feminist manifesto, (an epithet with which Lessing was reportedly uncomfortable).

The Good Terrorist

The novel was published in the mid-1980s, and told the story of a well-intentioned and idealistic, if misguided, squatter, who, along with other, similarly well-intentioned and dysfunctional, people wants to destroy the society she lives in. The plot is simple as is Lessing’s prose style, but it drew me in totally when I first read this novel a few years after it first came out. It seems to me that what Lessing is doing here is obliquely portraying the evils of the society or system.

London Observed

I don’t read short-stories very often (I had attempted to read many years ago a collection of short stories of the 2013 Nobel Laureate Alice Munro, which put me in a philosophical mood, with particular emphasis on tedium), but I like this collection of short-stories, even though some of the “stories” are best described as sketches. It is an astutely observed and insightful book on contemporary London, which, by itself, would have been of interest to me; but in the hands of a great writer, it also becomes a commentary on the human experience.

In Pursuit of the English

It’s a non-fiction work. First published more than fifty years ago, the book—probably best described as a memoir—describes the first few years in Lessing’s life after she arrived in England, the land of her parents. This is a wry, unsentimental, and at times very funny look at the years Lessing spent in working class environs. The prose is full of vigour and the book reads like a novel. Very, very enjoyable.

Always one to speak her mind, Lessing, upon her arrival in England, declared that the contemporary English literature was “small, well-shaped, and with too much left out.” She was one of the many post-war writers who injected the much needed vitality, colour and life into English writing, broadened its canvas, and made it richer. May her soul rest in peace.