Don’t Just Remember Doris Lessing as a Feminist Icon

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Nov. 18 2013 2:13 PM

Lessing Is More

Lessing was right to deny that The Golden Notebook was a feminist masterpiece.

Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing always denied that The Golden Notebook was a feminist masterpiece.

Photo bt Richard Haines/AFP/Getty Images

Doris Lessing is dead, finally dead at age 94. When I heard the news I thought right away of the moment when Jane Eyre is being terrified into obedience by the loathsome Mr. Brocklehurst. “Should you want to fall into a pit and be burning there forever?” he asks her, hoping to scare her into cowering Christianity. “No, sir.” So what will you do to avoid it, he asks her, will you repent? I have a better idea, she replies: “I must keep in good health, and not die.” Repenting—to ministers, to capitalist fat-cats, or to p.c. bullies—was never an option for Lessing. But refusing to die (or to shut up) worked pretty well for Lessing right up to yesterday.

It’s likely that most obituaries and rapid-fire memorializations will circle back to the book Lessing is virtually synonymous with, The Golden Notebook, her mind-bending novel about the rage, the woe, and the lunacy that go along with being young, female, and politically opinionated in sexist, parasitical, not-yet-post-imperial London. Lessing was already a prescient anatomizer of postcolonial rage in her breakout 1950 novel The Grass Is Singing. But it’s Golden Notebook’s quirky genius that led to her being praised and pilloried as a political feminist of the ’60s. When I went back to it last year, it still felt as fresh as lemon juice on an open cut.

Lessing always denied that The Golden Notebook was a feminist masterpiece, and my view is that she was right to do that. Like her later novels, it aims to rotate the world and look at the old truths, and the old fights, from another axis entirely. If anything, The Golden Notebook explored why people wanted to call themselves feminist, or Marxist, (not to mention Tory or Labour)—as if pinning a label on your blazer solved anything.

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Lessing was the last of a loveably, brilliantly irascible generation of writers who never stopped screaming about the horrors of the American century that they were stuck in. But she was also the truest practitioner of what Emile Zola labeled back in 1880 “the experimental novel.” I have no idea how she pulled it off, but Lessing wrote novels that tweaked everyday stifling reality just enough that not so everyday things started happening—on the page and in her readers’ reeling brains.

Lessing was born in 1919. When she left Rhodesia in 1949 for London she was already toting with her an award-winning novel (and a baby she raised alone). Scarcely a year went by (maybe 2006?) in which she didn’t publish something not only new but unexpected, including a graphic novel and at least four books about cats. I’d lay money that she has gone through as many phases and genres as any three other Nobel laureates combined. I’m a huge fan of her reputation-imperiling “space fiction” of the 1980’s, but there are people who swear by her four Africa-centric works of memoir/autobiography, and others devoted to the not-quite-fantasy Children of Violence series, which culminates in the abidingly bizarre The Four-Gated City (1969).

There are many ways to make sense of Lessing without making The Golden Notebook your litmus test. For one thing, she was the last survivor of the generation of writers that included Saul Bellow (b. 1915), John Cheever (b. 1912), William Burroughs (b. 1914), and almost George Orwell (b. 1903); believe it or not Flannery O’Connor, Norman Mailer, and Allen Ginsberg were born in the next decade, as was Lessing’s diminished shadow, Nadine Gordimer. I think the peers she belongs with most, though, are Ralph Ellison (b. 1914) and Richard Wright (b. 1908). Like her, they were novelists who veered away from the mandarin modernism of Joyce and Faulkner, lighting up the low dishonest decades of the midcentury with biting protests against things as they are, and luminous proposals for how different everything could be.

Like Wright, Lessing was sometimes possessed by a holy rage; The Golden Notebook was only the best-known of a remarkable series of novels, my favorite of them is The Summer Before the Dark (1973), designed to reveal how horrid—and yet how hollow—were the chains that held her readers to their neighborhoods, their jobs, their beliefs , and their marriages (especially their marriages). But she also shares plenty, more than is usually acknowledged, with the madcap, firecracker-tossing Ellison—more than just an allergy to “party-line” solutions to tricky political problems. She reminds me of the sly subversion of Ellison at his best (but he only had one novel!) because I don’t know a writer who’s better at turning seemingly open-and-shut cases on their head, leaving readers suddenly realizing that they must, after all, believe the opposite of what they thought they believed.

In Pursuit of the English (1960), for example, is one of the funniest insider-outsider satires I’ve ever read. Rather than starting her memoir (or is it a mock-memoir?) with a predictable assault on British snobbery—I’m poor, friendless and colonial, while they’re rich old and comfortable—she becomes fixated on the number of people who go to great lengths to explain to her that they are not English: My grandmother was Welsh!; Can’t you see how brown I look in the sun? etc. etc. Nobody in England is really English, she eventually concludes.

It’s a mark of how deadpan her satire is that she really seems to mean it. Lessing may be two-thirds Wright and Ellison, but she is also at least one-third Jonathan Swift. Everything she writes could read as a kind of creepy “Modest Proposal.” If youth gangs show up in the park across from your apartment, that may be because the world is ending (Julie Christie was awesome as the nameless heroine in the movie of that one); if the world were divided up into a peaceful matriarchy and a berserker war-zone, then a marriage between leaders would be the logical solution. Lessing’s antic you-could-not-possibly-make-this-stuff-up weirdness—e.g., a planet on which a jaded overlord manipulates various short-lived societies into carrying out hundreds of variations on the French Revolution on—makes her fiction far more memorable, and durable than it would be if it really were (as devotes and enemies of the Golden Notebook often assert) a straightforward manifesto for political equality between the sexes.

Last year I wrote an article praising Lessing for “feeling like a Stoic.” Faced with white-hot feelings of her characters, she always remains, always wants her readers to remain, surprisingly cool. She doesn’t hate the emotions, she knows that the world runs on them (that’s what those multiple French Revolutions are for—to see what passions like rage, love, and resentment might actually be good for).

Her much-maligned turn toward both Sufism and “space fiction” (developments that Gore Vidal and Joan Didion were especially cruel about was completely consistent with what made her fiction great from the get-go. Lessing has always had an iron-clad conviction that the best way to make sense of other people’s passions was to dial one’s own feelings back. Feel their pain: sure, yes, but only by first making the stoical decision that one’s own pain shouldn’t get in the way of a rational response to the lunacy that surrounded one.

Even though she writes about characters who rave and plead, who fall in love and set out to kill, who sin and renounce and generally run the gamut of passionate states, you can always feel Lessing herself, standing back and trying to get the details just right. Wilkie Collins and the Victorian “sensation novelists” were praised for affecting readers like “pounded ice dropped down the back of the neck.” Lessing is anti-sensational: She wants her readers as cool as her, looking down on life from a thousand feet up.

The novels I love, like The Fifth Child and The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (Philip Glass made an opera of that one) are experiments. She writes them because she wants to see what will change about a life if one fact changes (say that you have a child who seems to be the incarnation of pure evil, or say that your world will be frozen solid in 10 years). But also, more importantly, an experiment in how readers will react to such a change.

I love that her final novel, Alfred and Emily, (2008) is a thought-experiment in what would have happened to Lessing’s own parents (ill-matched in life, she explains in a preface) had been allowed to make better marriages, and be happy. Part of Lessing’s point is that in such a world Lessing herself would not exist. Imagine not being, she tells her reader, even imagine yourself not being, and then notice how life goes on anyway.

Well, now she doesn’t exist; and yes, she’s right, it still does. But we needed her. Hell, I even needed her to formulate that thought experiment about what it would mean to do without her. If Auden is right that at a writer’s death she “becomes [her] admirers,” then a lot of us have quite a job ahead of us. Becoming even a very little piece of Doris Lessing strikes me as hard work.

John Plotz’s first children’s book, Time and the Tapestry, is due out from Bunker Hill Publishing in April 2014. He recently began work on The Recalcitrants, a book about irritable, unfashionable, prescient and largely forgotten writers unhappily trapped inside “the American century.”

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