Prizing Doris Lessing


By Christopher Hitchens

Doris Lessing

Almost intoxicating to see the Nobel committee do something honorable and creditable for a change … It's as though the long, dreary reign of the forgettable and the mediocre and the sinister had been just for once punctuated by a bright flash of talent. And a flash of 88-year-old talent at that, as if the Scandinavians had guiltily remembered that they let Nabokov and Borges die (yes, die) while they doled out so many of their awards to time-servers and second-raters. Had they let this happen to Doris Lessing as well, eternal shame would have covered them.

Harold Bloom might conceivably be right (actually, if it matters, I do think he is right) to say that Lessing hasn't written much of importance for the last 15 or so years. But that's not to say that she shouldn't have received the Nobel laurels 20 years ago, if not sooner. (It was Hemingway who first acidly pointed out that authors tend to get the big prize either too early or too late. In his own case, he compared it with swimming ashore under his own steam and then being hit over the head with a life belt.)

To review the depth and extent of Lessing's work is to appreciate that some writers really do live for language and are willing to take risks for it. It's also to understand that there is some relationship between the hunger for truth and the search for the right words. This struggle may be ultimately indefinable and even undecidable, but one damn well knows it when one sees it.

I can remember with crystal precision when I first read her early fiction. It was in white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), more than three decades ago. Two of her stories—The Grass Is Singing and This Was The Old Chief's Country—combined the sad indistinctness of a melancholy memoir with the very exact realization that a huge injustice had been done to the "native" inhabitants of the land to which she had been transplanted. For much of her life, the battle against apartheid and colonialism was the determining thing in Lessing's life. She joined the Communist Party and married a German Communist exile (who was much later killed as the envoy of East Germany to Idi Amin's hateful regime in Uganda), and if you ever want to read how it actually felt, and I mean truly felt, to believe in a Communist future with all your heart, her novels from that period will make it piercingly real for you.

Later on, and in a way that is now so familiar that we take it for granted, she gave up this animating faith. But not without writing about it in such a way as to make you catch your breath. There is a short fiction called The Day Stalin Died that would deserve reprinting in any anthology of the prose of the 20th century. I have only twice had the experience of reading a story that was so good, and that seemed so much to know what I might be thinking myself, that I was almost afraid to read on.

The first time was with Katherine Mansfield, and the second was when holding Lessing's tale The Temptation of Jack Orkney (which is incidentally also about a crisis of faith). Please make a resolution to acquire the volumes in which these occur. It will help you to determine the gold standard in modern writing. I would say it was a sure thing that it was respect for language, rather than any immediate political trauma, that drove her out of the Communist Party. (She once told me that she had been in the party's so-called "writers' group," which often discussed the "problems" of "committed" writers, before realizing that the main writing problem had to do with being in the group, not to say the party, in the first place.)

The Nobel committee, saturated as usual in its obligation to be worthy, dutifully cites the "epic" element in Lessing's pioneering feminism. Well, there is no need to disagree here. But in stressing the buried desires and ambitions of the female, and in forcing her readers to confront what in a sense they already "knew," she rather tended to insist that what a real woman wanted was a real man. The making of this elemental point lost her almost as many admirers as it gained. But, once again, she simply could not employ her literary and emotional capacities for mere propaganda purposes.

I do not want to make her out to be a sage, or a grand dame. Her most anti-Communist book (The Wind Blows Away Our Words) is somewhat too romantic an account of the rebels fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan. I don't find her science fiction compelling and was put off when she tried to interest me in the work of the Sufi mystic charlatan Idries Shah (whose "books" were once summarized by Gore Vidal as "a good deal harder to read than they were to write"). What is seriously remarkable, however, is her willingness to experiment with so many forms of writing, and even, if you like, to take the risk of looking foolish rather than to allow herself to become standardized or calcified or type-cast.

I was touched and interested to see Doris Lessing photographed last week, outside the same row house in the rather rough and plebeian district of North London where she has lived for so many decades. Having been an avenging angel of sexuality in her youth, she doesn't mind in the least looking a bit like a bag lady or a cat collector as she approaches her 90th year. (Actually, she once did produce rather a good book about felines.) There was a serenity to the scene: a person who has just happened to get the Nobel Prize but who really doesn't need that sort of confirmation.