This article was originally published in The Progressive's June, 1999 edition. To get more great content like this, subscribe today for as little as $10 a year and get a free 2014 calendar as a gift.
By Jonah Raskin
Fifty years after migrating from provincial South Africa to London to become a novelist, Doris Lessing is still writing on a manual typewriter -- though not, of course, on the same machine she used for her first novel, The Grass Is Singing (Crowell, 1950).
No typewriter could have survived the relentless pounding necessary to produce the forty or so internationally acclaimed books that have appeared over the past fifty years, including The Golden Notebook (Simon & Schuster, 1962), a strange and beautiful novel that is often called "a bible for feminists," though the label distresses Lessing herself. It's an extraordinary literary achievement by anyone's standards, but perhaps especially so since Lessing -- who was born in Kermanshah, Persia, on October 22, 1919 -- is a high school dropout who has never received a degree in higher education, except honorary ones from places like Harvard
Many of her fans, especially feminists, have wanted Lessing to go on rewriting The Golden Notebook, but she has been loath to repeat herself. "I never do anything twice," she reminded me during our recent interview. The woman who began her writing career as a more or less conventional novelist has turned her talents to space fiction, science fiction, species fiction, and most recently -- in Mara and Dann (HarperCollins, 1999) -- to an old-fashioned action-packed adventure story set thousands of years in the future.
The Golden Notebook was my passport to Lessing's intricate and seductive body of work, as it was for so many readers in the 1960s -- and still is for readers all over the world. I met Lessing in 1969 on her very first visit to the United States, which for years had refused to grant her a visa on the grounds that she had once belonged to the Communist Party. Over the past thirty years, we have adopted each other. Doris has been a mother figure, nurturing and scolding by turns. I've served as a kind of ambassador to various American subcultures and to the American academic world. Each time we have met, Lessing has made it a point to say what she has been most afraid of saying, lest she run afoul of popular opinion or prevailing values.
She's also tried to wake me from some of my own illusions about revolution, about love, about power. In the late 1960s, for example, she suggested that the utopian impulse wouldn't last forever, though I didn't want to believe her. More recently, she seems to have allowed her tender side to emerge. One night in northern California in 1989, we went for a walk in the darkness, gazing at the sky and talking about Africa, when Doris suddenly stopped in her tracks and said she regretted not knowing the names of the constellations.
Doris Lessing's refusal to accept conventional wisdom has made me a sort of Lessingite, though she has never encouraged followers or disciples. She says again and again that if human beings are to survive as a species, we must be very adaptable, that we need to "entertain many ideas, sometimes contradictory ideas" and "resist group thinking and group pressures."
Recently, at her home in north London, where we met once again to chat, she turned her critical gaze almost everywhere she looked -- at feminism, the 1960s, fame, and current fads in spirituality. On the cusp of eighty, she is as fiercely independent as ever.
Thirty years ago, when we had our first conversation, we talked about Vietnam, revolution, the unconscious. This time it was privacy, death, the end of the twentieth century. Lessing has always been obsessed with time -- with remembering the past and imagining the future -- but her obsession has acquired a new and powerful intensity.
Q: In 1969, one of your most revealing comments was, "What interests me more than anything is how our minds are changing, how our ways of reality are changing."
Doris Lessing: I wonder what I meant. You know, I often feel like a dinosaur. I don't get the technology thing at all. I was on the Internet not long ago for Barnes and Noble, and people were ringing up from all over the world -- Australia, Canada, France. I experienced it as an informal chat, which was pleasant, but I couldn't quite take it in. It had a strong element of unreality. I can't be bothered to switch to a computer at my age, though I might get along with e-mail, which sounds appealing.
Q: How do you envision the future?
Lessing: Recently, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke talked about the ways the lives of human beings will be changed in the next century. At least half of them I didn't understand at all, though I'm sure that kids today would know exactly what he meant. I'm somewhere in the past. I do think, however, that our brains have been damaged by technology. I meet kids who don't seem to be capable of reading a long sentence, much less a long book.
There are probably analogies with Gutenberg. When the print revolution occurred 400 years ago, human beings lost a certain mental capacity, including a sense of memory. In Africa today, you meet people who still carry everything in their heads, the way we used to. We rely on telephone books, address books. We have to look up everything. Another thing: Kids today demand greater and greater stimulation. I think that constant demand for stimulation is one reason why so many people are becoming Buddhists. It's a reaction to the noise, the clutter. I'm so lucky here in this house. At night there's no sound at all, except a bird turning over in its bed. The silence is wonderful.
Q: In 1969 you also said, "When you've finished a patch of your life, you look back and you see that it has a pattern which you didn't notice when you were living it." Are you in the midst of a patch right now, or are you out of one and able to look back at it?
Lessing: I think I am at the end of a certain phase of my life. What I'm on the lookout for now is the unexpected, for things that come from outside and that I never thought might happen. Sometimes you have to watch for them so you don't automatically say no to the new, simply because you're in the habit of saying no to everything that comes along. I'm constantly changing my perspective on my own life. I see the past differently, and that's a wonderful thing.
Q: What about getting on in life? How does that feel?
Lessing: Before Christmas last year I had a mini-stroke. I had been to Athens and Vienna, and then almost at once to Zimbabwe, which is a long, long way, and I think it was the trip to Zimbabwe that did it. I woke up one morning, and I couldn't move my arm. It was the oddest thing, the paralysis. I called up a friend and said, "I think I've had a stroke," and, in fact, that's what my doctor told me. It wasn't terrible, but it was enough to scare me. Now I think about death all the time. I have my death arm, my right arm. My speech was slurred, too. I couldn't get the words out.
Q: You think about death all the time now?
Lessing: Yes, death, memento mori. I wonder how much more time I have. Before I begin a new book now, I wonder is it worth it? Will I have time to finish it?
Q: I visited Anthony Burgess in Europe when he was in his mid-sixties, and he told me that he was counting the years and calculating how many more books he could write before his death.
Lessing: Yes, that's it exactly!
Q: Are there any pleasures in getting old?
Lessing: Mostly getting old is boring. I hate the stiffness in the bones. I was physically arrogant for years. I don't like it now that I have difficulty getting around. But a certain equanimity sets in, a certain detachment. Things seem less desperately important than they once did, and that's a pleasure.
Q: What do you do for fun?
Lessing: I go to the theater and to the opera a lot. I go to art exhibits, and I walk on Hampstead Heath three or four times a week. I garden and I read, which has always been a great pleasure.
Q: How many things do you have going on in your head now?
Lessing: Ideas? I'm not at a loss for ideas. I never have been, and I doubt I ever will be. But now I've got to be careful which ideas I pursue.
Q: Years ago you told me that you had an idea for a novel about two men -- one of them a Communist and the other a Nazi -- who share the same prison cell. As I recall, the whole novel was their arguments back and forth about politics, ideology.
Lessing: I wrote that and tore it up. Actually, I'm glad that I tore up that novel, though I also had a whole play (that was pure farce) in the middle of it. I'm quite sad that I destroyed the play.
Q: Have you destroyed other manuscripts?
Lessing: Yes, two or three books. I hate having masses of unjelled stuff hanging around. If they don't work, I tear them up. For the book about the two political prisoners, I had various sources. During World War II, the British dumped a whole lot of German refugees -- some of them Nazi spies, some of them fervent anti-Nazis -- on the Isle of Man, which they turned into an experimental university with orchestras and plays and discussion groups. It must have been hell for Nazis and anti-Nazis to live side by side. I know it was. I was told it was by people who were there.
Q: You've already written two volumes of your autobiography, Under My Skin (HarperCollins, 1994) and Walking in the Shade (HarperCollins, 1997), which goes to 1962 when The Golden Notebook was published. What about writing volume three?
Lessing: I have great pressure from my agent and from my publishers to write the third vol because vols one and two did so well both in the States and in England. But I can't write it easily. I spent much of the 1960s as a kind of house mother for a lot of deeply troubled teenagers. Now they're all middle-aged, and it wouldn't be fair to expose them. A way around it all would be to write a book that has a lot of public, social stuff but nothing personal.
Q: You once said that you "preserve the old-fashioned idea that a writer's life is his or her property, until we die." In part, you do seem to be increasingly private.
Lessing: There are certain things I don't talk about. I have kept diaries, of course, but they can't be read for quite a long time. What will emerge when people read them? I can't imagine that anything will emerge that can't be deduced from reading any of my books now. This is why I'm always curious about people who are fascinated by writers' lives. It seems to me that we're always in our books, quite nakedly. I wonder, too, does the private life really matter? Who cares what is known about you and what isn't? Even when you make public something that's been private, most people don't get it -- not unless they're the same generation and have gone through more or less the same experiences. So, in a sense, we're all private, by definition.
Q: You have been a Sufi now for more than thirty years. Could you say something about it?
Lessing: You know, there's a Sufi bandwagon now, a Sufi craze. Everyone wants a quick fix. I am constantly sent books that purport to be about the Sufi way, and they never are. It's not something you can find in a book. You don't discover the Sufi message from a writer. Sufism is something you experience on your own. It's the same for Buddhism. You can't read a book and receive enlightenment.
Q: You've said that the Sufi ideal is to create individuals who can see themselves as others see them. Here in London, I wonder how people see me, and how they see Americans. You have been observing us for a long time. How do you see us?
Lessing: Over the past half century there has been a very sharp change. In the 1950s you could tell an American 100 yards away. This would have been your father's generation. They were all so buttoned up. Men were all correct in their flannel suits and crew cuts, and their mouths -- they could barely bring themselves to smile, much less bring themselves to get their words out. Talk about the British stiff upper lip! Americans had a stiff lower lip! It was terribly beleaguered body language, and I think that it had to do with the Cold War, the whole repressiveness of that era. Then the 1960s came along and Americans became sloppy and loose and relaxed. I can't begin to tell you what a remarkable transformation it was. Everyone seemed to turn into his or her opposite.
Q: What do you have to say about the 1960s?
Lessing: I don't share the widely held admiration for the 1960s. I was in London, "Swinging London," as it was called, and I saw a lot of suicides and a lot of people who ended up in loony bins. There were a great many casualties. The 1960s was a dangerous decade -- though, of course, the politics of that time was very attractive. Nothing is more attractive than people playing at being revolutionaries. The people who were involved in Paris, 1968, and all that, I find very attractive. Of course, I was too old to really enjoy the 1960s. By the time 1968 rolled around, I was almost fifty. I should have been in my twenties.
Q: In your short novel The Fifth Child (Knopf, 1988), you describe the 1960s as "greedy and selfish." I assume that you meant the idea of immediate gratification.
Lessing: Yes, of course. The 1960s was probably the first time in history that young people were recognized as a big group of consumers and as a commercial proposition for Madison Avenue. Advertising played a major role in creating the ethos of that era -- the idea that, "Here it is, and you can have it now." I know that many kids thought that the ethos of the 1960s was due to their own peculiar virtues, but, in fact, it had a lot to do with the realities of the marketplace and commerce.
Q: What about the current American political scene?
Lessing: I was in New York when Clinton was elected the first time, and everyone I knew was in a state of mad euphoria. I wondered what had happened to my hard-headed friends? Almost everyone I knew was drunk on this great white hope. The next time I was in New York, no one had a good word to say about Clinton, but everyone was in love with Hillary. She was the last word. It's all so unreal. Of course, it's no different in England. Here everyone was besotted with Tony Blair. He was a new face. Do people never learn?
Q: Are all politicians the same?
Lessing: All politicians are not the same. I've never felt that way. What is the same is that voters get very excited about new faces, like Clinton and Blair -- and they have unrealistic expectations that the world will change overnight. A cynical old hand like myself knows that it won't.
Q: If you could have an hour-long TV program on the twentieth century, what would you want to communicate?
Lessing: That we always seem to be surprised by events, especially by catastrophes, but also by wonderful events. Look at 1990, the year that the Soviet Union collapsed and apartheid in South Africa collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down. I don't know anyone who foresaw those events. It seems to me that as a species we are constantly trying to adapt ourselves to the unexpected. In the meantime, we talk as if we are in control, and we're not. This seems to me to be the truth about the twentieth century. Here we sit with the most dangerous thing going in Yugoslavia. I find it terrifying. We're bombing Belgrade to bits, and we've been told the most amazing lies about it all.
Q: What are we not being told?
Lessing: I wonder why do wars suddenly start and suddenly stop, and why do we Brits and you Americans get involved in some of them and not in others? Right now there are little wars and big brutalities going on all over the place, and we haven't invaded or become militarily involved, as we have in Yugoslavia. Is it possible that the arms manufacturers quietly foment wars without us knowing? Dropping bombs is a very profitable business for them. Gore Vidal was talking about this the other day, and he made a lot of sense. Whenever American policy seems inscrutable, he said, remember the military-industrial complex. He's the one who should have been President.
Q: It's often the case that the bigger the news story, the longer it takes to reach the front page or the TV screen.
Lessing: As you know, the first casualty in any war is the truth. In World War II, I was part of a group of people who used to meet once a week with the sole purpose of analyzing the news and trying to work out what we weren't being told. We thought that we were clever, but we had absolutely no idea what was really going on. It was only years later that we learned the true story.
Q: Has living in London shaped you, or were you already formed by the time you arrived in 1949?
Lessing: I was already formed by the time I arrived in London.
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.
Q: When you arrived in London, you felt it was depressing. Later, it became one of the pleasantest places in the world. How does it seem now?
Lessing: London has changed enormously and so have the English in the past decade. They're more like Americans and more like Europeans, too. They're always eating out, and when they're at home they don't cook the way they did ten years ago. They're all sitting around in cafés, like the Continentals, drinking coffee and chattering and watching the world go by.
If you go out on a Friday night, central London is packed with young people having a good time. It's marvelous. And the French and Dutch and Belgians come here to have a good time because London is swinging.
Q: I'm amazed at the amount of traveling that you have done in the last decade or so. You're all over London reading to students, and you've been to Afghanistan, Argentina, Austria, Brazil, China, Iceland, Italy, Pakistan, the United States, Zimbabwe.
Lessing: I have done a lot, haven't I? But I'm not going to do much more traveling from now on. I am, however, going to Catalonia because I am going to be awarded a big literary prize -- Premi Internacionál Cataluña. I simply adore Barcelona. You know, of course, that Catalonia would like to be separate from Spain, but instead of rushing into the streets with banners, or blowing up the Spanish king, they have taken a different tack. They've created a great cultural movement at the highest levels. I'm impressed because it's good politics and also very entertaining.
Q: Have you ever written about your experiences in China?
Lessing: I haven't and I probably won't because I mostly have a lot of impressions based on a short visit. Before I went to China I was told that the Chinese wouldn't talk about politics, but that wasn't true. I was there with Margaret Drabble and Michael Holroyd, and we found that the Chinese were very open and apparently fearless. They spoke critically about the cultural revolution. There was no one looking over his or her shoulder expecting an arrest.
In Shanghai, I saw great contrasts. On one street there would be impressive shops selling copies of the latest word in glamorous European fashion, and around the corner on a back street there were poor families crammed into one room with a naked light bulb. One evening I heard a Chinese family singing "Happy Birthday." It was weird. You would have thought that they'd have their own happy birthday song. Every dominant society in the world -- whether it's French or British or American -- imposes its culture on less developed societies.
Q: All my women friends in academia tell me I have to ask you a question about feminism.
Lessing: I keep sounding off about feminism, don't I? From what I've observed, and from what friends have told me, feminism has been turned into a religion with dogmas and churches. I certainly don't envy men in American universities. But this phase is about to pass. It can't go on much longer. America can be a very hysterical country intellectually and very puritanical, too. You probably have fun in private, but to the rest of the world you seem to hate fun -- to be big on agendas and short on spontaneity. The image you present is one of appalling conformity. The thought police is what you are ruled by.
There are many feminists who work in the media, and they think that feminism is very important. It is in their own lives, but mostly feminism has had an impact among privileged women in the advanced Western countries. For the most part, it hasn't begun to touch the lives of poor and working women in the Third World, and that distresses me.
Q: At the end of your most recent novel, Mara and Dann, there's a remark that your heroine, Mara, makes that sounds quintessentially Lessing. "Yes, it's true, but.... " You seem very transparent in this book.
Lessing: The thing that is naked is that I adored my baby brother Harry.
Q: You don't have to be a genius to see that Mara might be you and Dann is Harry. Like many of your other books, Mara and Dann is about a journey.
Lessing: I hate to sound clichéd, but I do see life as a journey. How else can you see it?
Q: Might you write a continuation of Mara and Dann?
Lessing: I would love to, because I'm fascinated by Dann, but everyone in America hates the book so I don't know. I'll have to wait and see. My time is running out.
Jonah Raskin is the chairman of the Communication Studies Department at Sonoma State University, and the author of "For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman" (University of California Press, 1998).
Photo: Flickr user Chris Drumm, creative commons licensed.