Friday, October 12, 2007

Particularly Doris Lessing

The British novelist Doris Lessing has been the Cassandra of our times, and rather like Cassandra, she's been mostly ignored by the literary establishment for decades, which makes her late-in-life selection for the Nobel Prize this week a surprisingly happy moment.

There are very few writers who have radically reshaped the way I look at the world, but she is definitely one of them, even though that vision is usually unflinchingly bleak. In fact, she may be the only writer I worship who does without humor, which doesn't seem to be in her palette.

She's also been remarkably difficult on her readers, shifting styles and genres whenever it suits her mood. The books from the 1950s, which I find pretty boring, are mostly earnest tales of colonial Africa where she was raised, married, and had two children who she abandoned before heading to London after World War Two. The first real masterpiece where she really came into her own voice was probably the autobiographical "In Pursuit of The English" about living in a bleak, bizarre boarding house in London during the grim years after the war. "The Golden Notebook," a wildly ambitious formal experiment, followed in 1962, and it was so startling in its depiction of intelligent women that the author was pigeonholed as a "feminist" writer for the rest of her career, much to her irritation.

Her next major work was "The Four-Gated City," the 600-page finale to her five-volume "Children of Violence" series. You can safely ignore the first four volumes, which are very dull, but this oracular history about a wealthy leftist London household is one of the great works of twentieth-century literature, and it ends with one of her major visionary themes, which is no less than the end of the world as we know it.

Her books from the 1970s, starting with "Briefing for a Descent into Hell" about what it's like to go mad, are all unsettling in different ways. My favorite is "The Summer Before The Dark," which is a good book to start with Lessing, because it's short, gracefully written and completely original. Throwing off her fans and the critics completely, Lessing spent the early 1980s writing a five-volume sci-fi series called "Canopus in Argos: Archives." Though I think the first volume, "Shikasta," is almost unreadable, the other four novels are close to perfection, allegories with serious bite to them. She followed this up by writing two novels under the assumed name of Jane Somers, which nobody would publish in the United Kingdom and which were published by Knopf in the United States before the ruse got out. It seemed she was sick of being "Doris Lessing."

This was followed by a series of remarkable books that range from the documentary-like "The Good Terrorist" to the frightening allegory of "The Fifth Child." She started a multi-volume autobiography in the 1990s, which I can't recommend highly enough, but after two volumes that took her up to "The Golden Notebook" in 1962, she decided that she couldn't write or publish a third installment because it would hurt the feelings of too many living people, so she turned it into a novel, "The Sweetest Dream." At 87, she's still writing novels, and though I haven't been reading them, I have been buying them and they are next on the list. Happy Nobel, Miss Doris.


namastenancy said...

I read her essays back when I was a mere child and liked them very much. I'm a science fiction fan but the ending of her last sci fi novel baffled me. Still, she's an absolutely no-nonsense, down to heart and completely honest writer. I love the photos of her - obviously she does not have a PR shill or make up person on staff.

momo said...

I've read almost all of Doris Lessing's work, although most of it a long time ago, but I never read the science fiction books because I was so put off by Shikasta. So you have inspired me to go back and give them a read. thanks!

lspier said...

The Grass is Singing, DL's first book and one of her tales of colonial Africa, is another completely delicious story of woman's descent into madness. It should not be overlooked. The Fifth Child is my other cringetastic favorite of hers.
Congratulations Ms. Lessing!

Kit Stolz said...

I haven't read Lessing, but I love that you can admire some of her books and call others "dull" or "unreadable." It's true. Any writer worth his or her salt takes chances, and anyone who takes chances will inevitably fail on occasion.