Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?

I always called her Doris, and so did almost everyone else who knew her and who read her books. I always found her approachable and never standoffish, though she once scolded me for giving an Australian feminist her phone number, and, when she was in the midst of writing a book, she rarely had time for me. She could be a scold and then in the next moment she was all kisses and roses. She once told me that she didn’t have a writing schedule, and that she wrote around all the other things she had to do, including look after her son Peter, who never, Doris explained, “cut the apron strings,” not even in adulthood. Peter lived in the flat next to Doris’s in North London.

They knocked down the redbrick wall that separate the two flats so that Peter could walk back and forth from his place to his mother’s place whenever he wanted to, often to sit and watch TV. I watched TV with him and had tea and chocolate biscuits and let the cats curl up in my lap.

After Peter died at 66, in October 2013, Doris died four weeks later at 94, soon after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which she never boasted about. It was no biggie.

In 2019, fans of Doris’s books are planning to celebrate, in Chicago and in Beijing, the one-hundredth anniversary of her birth in 1919 in what was then known as Persia, but that’s now called Iran. She was born Doris May Tayler, the daughter of a veteran of World War I, whose life was upended by “The Great War.” She took the name of her second husband, Gottfried Lessing, a German-born Communist she married in Africa.

I wonder if her fans know who and what they’ll be celebrating on the one-hundredth anniversary of her birth, and why. In fact, there is no Doris Lessing. There are only a series of identities that she assumed and discarded and then took on new ones, as a colonial girl, a Communist, a Sufi, a global traveler, a Cassandra and as a mother to several generations of misfits and outcasts. In the 1970s, when I visited her at her flat, she’d make dinner. She’d always ask if I was hungry and insist on feeding me in a maternal way. Her tarragon chicken with roasted carrots was killer.

Once she dressed in a burqa and rode the London underground to see what it might be like for a Muslim woman in an unfriendly environment. “We have to see ourselves as other people see us, and we have to try to experience what it’s like for people from other countries and cultures,” she told me. She did that in her books.

Doris rarely boasted about anything, though she liked it when I said that I enjoyed her books, and not just The Golden Notebook, which made her famous, but also the Canopos in Argos series which was known as “space fiction,” and that she was inspired to write in part after reading Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction. She especially wanted me to like her 2001 novel The Sweetest Dream, which is set in London and in a fictional African nation. I didn’t and told her so. That was no biggie. I didn’t appreciate her premise. “The sweetest dream that humans have is not to be in love but to be in a utopia,” she said.

In New York in 1973, I asked her if she wanted to meet anyone in the city. “Yes, Norman Mailer,” she said. When I offered to arrange a get-together she blushed and insisted that I do nothing to connect her to Mailer. She would be too embarrassed.

A few years later, she complained about what she called my “revolutionary romanticism,” and suggested that I get in touch with and meet her ex-lover, Clancy Sigal, who was also a writer and who provided the inspiration for her fictional character, Saul Green.

Clancy was just as impatient with my “revolutionary romanticism” as Doris, though he and she were always interested in my stories about Black Panthers, the Weather Underground and the Yippies. I was not surprised when she didn’t want to be known as a feminist, but I was surprised when she came out in support of the Mujahedin who were fighting against Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

After her romance with Communism—she actually belonged to the British CP—she hated the Soviets. Her membership in the CP delayed her visit to the U.S. The Department of State would not issue her a visa until 1969, which is when I met her at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. During her visit, the students rioted. I took her to a meeting of the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Later, she talked about the “beautiful young Ches” she met and then was sorry she romanticized them. She was the original revolutionary romantic.

If Doris became fussier and crankier as she aged, she also always managed to stand with the underdog, and to be ready to defend the marginalized, the unappreciated and the forgotten. She didn’t like it when reporters who came to interview her got credit, while the photographers were treated like underlings who didn’t count.

When I knew her, which was from the late 1960s until shortly before her death, Doris was always leaving a political cause and turning her back on “the left,” only to adopt another cause, even if it was only to herald a lost writer like Anna Kavan. She had to have a cause.

Once, I went with her by taxi from her home to the London Review Bookstore, where she appeared on a panel about Kavan’s work, which dealt with themes, like madness, that were dear to her. “I’ve never gone mad,” she told me. “But I know what it’s like.” People who loved the Sixties annoyed her. “I was there,” she said. “It was a sad, mad, bad time.”

Having lived through World War II and the Cold War, she was almost always against war, and grateful to the unknown, unheralded women in all counties who protested against bombs, armies and the lies that accompany them. “Our side was often as bad as their side,” she explained. “We completely destroyed Dresden.” After 9/11 we talked on the phone. “It’s going to be bad for Muslims,” she said. “There’s going to be a big backlash.” She was right about that. “Bad things always happen,” she said. “If you predict the worst you won’t be wrong.” At the same time she wanted to be upbeat. “I try not to say ‘No’ to new things simply because they’re new,” she said.

We shared a love of drama on the BBC, watched episodes of Foyle’s War and talked about American politics and American elections, which befuddled her. “Suddenly everyone’s wild about Bill Clinton, and then he’s forgotten and everyone’s wild about someone else,” she said in the 1990s. She could also tell funny stories, like the one about the time in New York when a publisher took her to lunch at a restaurant where the waitresses were topless. “I can’t imagine what he was thinking,” she said. “After all, I’ve seen a lot of breasts.”

Driving her around northern California, she was reminded of her time in Rhodesia, where she lived from the mid-1920s to the late-1940s. She suddenly felt homesick. Meeting a circle of my literary friends who published a magazine, she remembered her early days with writers on the left.

If I wanted to write fiction there was one thing above all else I had to understand: irony. Maybe those who want to honor Doris might imagine that she would not appreciate fans gathered to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth. She was once invited to attend a Doris Lessing conference at the University of Leeds. She declined, though I offered to travel with her. “It would look funny if you and I arrived together,” she said.

Honor Doris? Read her books. Read The Grass Is Singing (1950), her first novel, and her two towering memoirs, Under My Skin (1995) and Walking in the Shade (2000), which she wrote when she heard that someone was writing her biography. She didn’t want anyone else to tell her story. Now, there will be an official biography. Maybe it will do her justice. She wanted Michael Holroyd, the biographer and husband of British novelist Margaret Drabble, to write her story. They bonded on a trip to China. After you read her memoirs, turn to Retreat to Innocence, her 1956 novel that she disowned and wanted the world to forget. In fact, nothing that Lessing wrote is forgettable, even when it’s didactic and hammers away at a point, which often was, “everything’s cracking up.” That’s the way that The Golden Notebook begins. “You’re the ideal reader for The Golden Notebook,” she told me once. I wasn’t the only one, though growing up in the Cold War and in a family of Communists I knew what she was writing about from the inside out. What I also remember is the time she explained that she didn’t know what she was going to write until she wrote it. “What’s the point of writing if you know ahead of time what you want to express?” she said. “You have to discover it in the process of writing.” That’s the best advice on writing I’ve ever received.

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