Sunday, November 17, 2013

Goodbye, Doris Lessing

Dog eared pages

I have not read all her books. I have not liked all her books. But one I read again, and again, is The Golden Notebook, of whose writing Doris Lessing explains in an introduction: "...it was not possible to find a novel which described the intellectual and moral climate of a hundred years ago, in the middle of the last century, in Britain, the way Tolstoy did it for Russia, Stendhal for France."

And so she set about doing it for the middle of the 20th century, where she lived.

The pages I have dog eared in The Golden Notebook are numerous and range from descriptions of strawberries  - "...the slipperiness of the cream under a gritty crust of sugar," - to echoes of my own feelings about writing - "Why can't you understand that...I can't pick up a newspaper without what's in it seeming so overwhelmingly terrible that nothing I could write would seem to have any point at all?' 'Then you shouldn't read the newspapers,' " - to socio-political analysis: "...5th July, 52: Most important of all, the effect of the American witch hunt is to produce a general level of conformity, a new orthodoxy from which a man dissents at his economic peril," to the echoes of the way one gets through a day - "Today I got up at seven, cooked breakfast for Janet, sent her to school...and felt as if I had saved that day from chaos."

I didn't pick up this book in a book shop in 2004 - when I had just moved to Cobble Hill and was recovering from being dumped - because it was written about a single mother living in London (and written by a woman who later left her two children). I bought it because I had just finished Moby Dick (which acted as a necessary anaesthetic), and because it was really thick and I like to lose myself in a book, not coming up for air, and because I thought I should read Doris Lessing. There are worse reasons. It is a classic.

The Times piece about her today starts off with a reference that irritated me, to her "childhood in the central African bush." She grew up in southern Rhodesia, which borders South Africa. That's southern Africa, not central Africa. But then, searching about, I found this quote attributed to her in an interview with the Progressive (June, 1999):

Q: In Going Home (Michael Joseph, 1957), you say that you were made by Central Africa, where you lived from age five to age thirty. Does that self-assessment still hold?


Lessing: Now I would say that I was formed by three main things: Central Africa, the legacy of World War I, and by literature, especially the Russian writers Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

Quite odd. I must be missing something.

She liked cats.

I don't know when I'll pick up The Golden Notebook again. I think I've read it three times in almost ten years, which fits my average of re-reading once every two to three years - at the least the books that are good enough to withstand scrutiny. The best ones can be read forever because you come to them every time a changed person, with new experience, and more perspective, finding words springing up from the page, where before they lay flat, and allowed you to pass on."

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