Swans Commentary » swans.com December 2, 2013  



A Note On Doris Lessing, 1919-2013


by Peter Byrne


In Memoriam



This novel [The Golden Notebook], then, is an attempt to break a form; to break certain forms of consciousness and go beyond them. While writing it, I found I did not believe some of the things I thought I believed: or rather, that I hold in my mind at the same time beliefs and ideas that are apparently contradictory. Why not? We are, after all, living in the middle of a whirlwind. Doris Lessing

...Lessing spoke compulsively by now in tongues, in other people's voices, and it was the dialogue among them that was the most fascinating thing.

—Lorna Sage


(Swans - December 2, 2013)   Doris Lessing wrote more than fifty books. Since her death on November 17 it has been disconcerting to watch journalists struggle, with much respect and ham fists, to reduce the Nobel Laureate of 2007 to a coherent entity. It's not just that a life span of ninety-four years is hard to funnel into a half-pint bottle of five hundred words. Lessing's subject could be said to be her own incoherence. Her most influential book, the autobiographically inclined, The Golden Notebook, 1962, could have been subtitled, "The Contradictory Lives I Might Have Led." Her fluttering between Communist parties and Sufi mysticism was less confusion than a game plan. The book warned against the oneness and unity the journalists were looking for: "any kind of single-mindedness, narrowness, obsession, was bound to lead to mental disorder, if not madness." She insisted, moreover, that "this novel was not a trumpet for women's liberation" while the Nobel Committee was busy calling her "the epicist of the female experience." Lessing was angry whenever she or her books were called feminist. The writer who in 2007 could say that September 11, 2001, in New York was "not that terrible" can't be shut up in a few neat paragraphs.

But she can be read, which, after all, is the only way to approach a novelist. She brought the manuscript of her first novel with her to London from the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. It was an exercise in realism published in 1950 as The Grass is Singing. Though not a chrysalis from which her whole oeuvre would follow, it does signal the first way station in the Lessing dialectic. Her protagonist Mary Turner grew up a poor white with a drunken father and a detached, husband-hating mother. Mary managed to make a niche for herself as a secretary in a pleasant town. The life satisfied her. She was active socially without being very close to anyone. As long as sex was ruled out, she was at ease with men and liked to subdue them. However, still single at thirty, she felt a social misfit. In desperation she married a poor farmer and found herself back in the deprivation of her childhood and, worse, living on a remote farm. She didn't enjoy sex and it played no part in the marriage. She soon felt contempt for her incompetent and ineffectual husband. She nevertheless relished the fact of his dependence on her and his guilt at having brought her into poverty. She enjoyed dominating him.

Mary's bitterness and frustration exacerbates her racism and the novel becomes a definitive examination of apartheid attitudes. Therein lies its value. By exercising power over black household servants and farm laborers, Mary achieves a perverse kind of fulfillment. She builds a little empire. But like Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, of which she lives a threadbare parody, Mary takes a step too far that puts her beyond white community values. Her "house boy" whom she has drawn into a love-hate duel kills her. Written today by a male, The Grass is Singing would be labeled misogynic. But it's only Doris Lessing's first deviation from coherence.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 2, 2013