On Doris Lessing and Not Saying Thank You
The woman has trouble stepping out of the taxi. She is old, and the taxi sits higher off the ground than she might like. As she stoops to protect her head, the long red scarf that hangs from her neck nearly brushes the pavement. The woman is not only old; she is also short and, it has to be said, somewhat squat—a small woman with gray hair tied back and stiff ankles cased in stockings, putting out a hand to steady herself against the open door of the taxi as the driver jogs over to assist her, his engine still running. She’s too far along to accept his help. She steps down slowly, asks the fare, and only after reaching for her pocketbook does she look straight into the camera, now close on her face, and ask what is being photographed. “We’re photographing you,” says a man’s voice, almost shyly, the long cone of a microphone pushed suddenly into view. “Have you heard the news?”
A number of obituaries of Doris Lessing, who died on Sunday, at the age of ninety-four, mentioned that when she learned she had won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature her response was, “Oh, Christ.” She said, “Oh, Christ,” and waved her hand at the reporters who had staked out her home in London, shooing them away. Then she turned and paid for her taxi as her son Peter, who lived with her and whom she cared for while he was ill, looked on. A running meter demands attention; after nearly nine decades, the last step to literary glory can be put off for five more minutes.
At eighty-nine, Lessing was the oldest writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the eleventh woman to do so. She was born in Persia, in 1919, to British parents, and she grew up on their failed farm in what was then Southern Rhodesia. As a young woman, she rejected the brutal, racist colonial system that she inherited, as well as the sexism that had crushed her mother’s life, and which nearly crushed hers after she married, at the age of nineteen. She was a committed Communist in the nineteen-forties, then spent the rest of her life refuting Communism, along with most other codified political movements. She moved to England, took younger artists into her home, and wrote book after book: novels, science fiction, memoirs, essays, poems, a libretto for an opera adapted from her book “The Making of the Representative for Planet 8,” with music by Philip Glass.
After her run-in with the press, Lessing went into her house. She came back with a glass of water, and, sitting on her front steps like she was getting ready to peel potatoes, she asked the reporters how she was supposed to react to their announcement. “The whole thing is so graceless and stupid and bad mannered,” Lessing said. They stammered. She was clearly having fun. Her name had been floated for years; the Nobel committee had made it clear to her that she was never going to win. Now it had apparently had a change of heart, tying her up with interviews and ceremonies and speeches just as she was getting ready to start another book.
We tend to expect certain things of people who win big prizes. First, there should be surprise, even shock, chased by a flicker of disbelief. That disbelief should soon give way to pleasure, but unchecked pleasure in the flush of success can be unseemly, embarrassing to witness; like Augustus Gloop lapping up the chocolate river in Willy Wonka’s factory, it makes for a gluttonous, and risky, display. The idea is to be collected, gracious, and sincere, to thank all of the people who helped you on your way to this, the most important moment of your life.
Winning the Nobel Prize was not the most important moment of Doris Lessing’s extraordinary and prolific life, and it seems as though some of her critics won’t forgive her for not pretending that it was, just as they won’t forgive her for leaving her two young children in the care of their father, in Rhodesia, so that she could pursue a different kind of life. Her obituary in the New York Times has a tone of peevish, gawking reproach. (Much better to read Margaret Atwood’s wonderful tribute in the Guardian.) These are many of the same people who pick at Lessing for refusing to call her best-known work, “The Golden Notebook,” a feminist book. But the uncompromising and unapologetic way in which she conducted both her private life and her writing life should speak for itself.
Lessing’s major political concern was the same as the one that is at the heart of feminism, and of all civil-rights movements: access. In her Nobel acceptance speech, called “On Not Winning the Nobel Prize,” Lessing described visiting two schools. The first was in what by then had become the independent Republic of Zimbabwe: “There is no atlas or globe in the school, no textbooks, no exercise books, or Biros. In the library there are no books of the kind the pupils would like to read, but only tomes from American universities, hard even to lift, rejects from white libraries, or novels with titles like ‘Weekend in Paris’ and ‘Felicity Finds Love.’ ” The second was an upper-crust London boys’ school. She told the students there about the students in Zimbabwe who begged visitors to bring them books. The London boys looked at her blankly, polite but bored. “I’m sure that some of them will one day win prizes,” she said. Look at Orhan Pamuk, she told her audience, look at V. S. Naipaul and J. M. Coetzee. All three, in their Nobel acceptance speeches, spoke of an early life spent with books. How can we better distribute knowledge?
“I have to conclude that fiction is better at ‘the truth’ than a factual record,” Lessing wrote in her 1993 preface to “The Golden Notebook.” When Lessing set out to tell the story of her parents in her final book, “Alfred and Emily,” published in 2008, she split it in two, pairing the real account of their miseries and privations with an imagined counter-history of what their lives might have been if the First World War had never happened. Sometimes, though, the factual record turns out to be just as good as fiction. The pugnacious bravado, the fascination and fury with politics, the death of the British Empire (Lessing refused to become a dame, because there was no longer any Empire to be Dame of), the apparent total lack of fear of failure—what Lessing needs now is a top-notch biographer. Hermione Lee, the best person for the job, has just published her book about Penelope Fitzgerald. Could we hold out hope that she might turn to Lessing next? Oh, Christ, what a prize that would be.
Alexandra Schwartz is on the editorial staff of the magazine. She is a frequent contributor to Page-Turner.
Above: Doris Lessing in 1980. Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty