A week for writers and lit lovers

Monday, November 18, 2013

Doris Lessing and Me

I first found Martha Quest in the 1950’s  in the Kingston Public Library. The book is the first in the Children of Violence series comprised of "Martha Quest” (1952), “A Proper Marriage” (1954), “A Ripple From the Storm” (1958), “Landlocked” (1965). The final book in the series, "The Four Gated City was written later in 1969 and by that time I was a committed feminist and open to all the new ideas presented therein.

I did not identify with Martha as many women often did with Lessing books, particularly The Golden Notebook (1962). The first book, “Martha Quest,” portrays a single woman, living in Rhodesia, passionately involved with the politics of her country, with like-minded  friends and lovers who are so passionate about the injustices visited on the blacks they create a Communist group which tries its best to organize opposition but runs up against the implacable barriers set up by the white colonial administration.

I, on the other hand, was a middle-class white woman on the typical treadmill of housework, childcare and job with family far off and an unhelpful husband. I was a person who knew nothing about politics, never discussed ideas with anyone, barely had an in-depth conversation from one day to the next, and who counted a successful day as one in which I found a few minutes late in the evening to  read a few pages of my latest library book.

Lessing gave me books about women, not only about their relationships with men or their marriages and children but about the interplay of ideas that surround women, their relationships with friends and above all their passionate political lives: all the ways people struggle together which are linked with race, class and history. Even today it is rare to read a book with a woman protagonist which even mentions politics; but politics, personal politics and global politics, is always central to her thought.

Like many people, I did not follow Lessing into her science fiction.  But otherwise I read almost everything she wrote and everything I read made me think. Her most beloved book, “The Golden Notebook,” which everyone seemed to be reading in the 70’s,  touched on  many themes that had never been examined before: mental breakdown, abortion, domestic violence, abandoning children, gender relations,  menstruation, orgasm,  intuition, the complexity of human relationships, the evils of Stalinism, the political quagmire.  Lessing said she wanted to show the danger of compartmentalizing one’s thinking, the idea that “any kind of single-mindedness, narrowness, obsession, was bound to lead to mental disorder, if not madness.”  

I remember fondly, “The Dairy of Miss Jane Summers,” “The Good Terrorist," "The Summer Before the Dark." In the 90’s I enjoyed her autobiographies, Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949(1994) and “Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949 to 1962” (1997), books that take us to her African childhood, her first marriages and to her momentous decision to leave her two young children with their father and move to London, England.

 Her own personality was gruff and argumentative, replete with contradictory pronouncements. Her view of feminism was primitive. She saw it as a hatred of men and repudiated it. So it is no surprise that she always stated her most acclaimed work, “The Golden Notebook,” was not a feminist book. Yet women around the world have claimed  it as one of the most influential books in their lives and it is often listed as one of the most important books of modern times. The book takes a wider view of feminism than that held by the author. It present an entire panoply of a woman’s existence: family, health, ideas and the complexities of a society which molds her and define her.  Lessing's women were engaged. I on the other hand was coping.  Perhaps she did not speak very often to women like me and so she did not understand what her books had done.

In 2007, Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Doris Lessing died at age 94 on November 18, 2013.


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