Friday, October 12, 2007

Why we need Doris Lessing

Before all Nobel-oriented discussion turns to Al Gore, The Wife wanted to get in a few comments about another of this year's deserving winners, who, she rightly believes, has been sorely misunderstood.

Pay attention.


My brief elation yesterday at learning that Doris Lessing had received the Nobel Prize for Literature was almost immediately thrashed by the ‘mixed’ reactions of the literary establishment to this long overdue recognition.

In Der Spiegel, Marcel-Reich Ranicki, a German literary critic renowned for his condemnation of well nigh anything and anyone but himself, voiced his ‘regret’ about the decision. ‘I would have expected Philip Roth,’ he sulked with his familiar splutter, reminding us that the Anglo-Saxon world had so many more deserving authors to offer than Lessing – of whose 50 (50!) books he’d read about three.

In the same Spiegel article, Denis Scheck, a youthful literary doyen, called the committee’s decision ‘politically good, but aesthetically bankrupt.’ Scheck did not let us in on how much (or how little) of Lessing’s oeuvre he had deigned to ingest, though I assume that – given his youth and the vacuity of his critique – it probably wouldn’t amount to more than a light lunch.

I also have to add that until yesterday I’d never heard of Master Scheck, but I was pleased to learn from his Wikipedia entry that we not only belong to more or less the same generational cohort, but also that we both took to reading at about the same, early age (a significant piece of biographical information that I will make sure to add to my own Wikipedia entry once I have it up and running).

Reich-Ranicki and Scheck, although at roughly opposite ends of the age spectrum, share membership in the vociferous anti-Lessing league, which always returns, with a persistence that borders on the obsessive, to the same hackneyed and unfounded prejudices from which its members seem to derive carte blanche to go around rubbishing her work at every available opportunity. These prejudices are:

a) Lessing is a bloody feminist.
b) Lessing is not Virginia Woolf.

Having said that, even those who celebrate Lessing seem determined to get her wrong. Among the more defensive responses was an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which opens with the following line: ‘But for a few weak books, Doris Lessing’s biography is flawless – it is all politically correct. The Nobel Prize for Literature appears to be standing in for the Nobel Peace Prize.’

Drivel like this confirms my sneaking suspicion that many journalists are simply not the sharpest tools in the shed. A politically correct biography!? Doris Lessing? A former Rhodesian Marxist who dumped her boring first husband for a German radical, abandoned two small children to go and live it up in London’s literary set and subsequently dabbled in Sufism and Sci-Fi only to spend most of the rest of her life railing against any form of political utopianism from feminism to Islamism?

Methinks that someone out there has some reading to do.

Moreover, the author of that article apparently has a hard time distinguishing biography from bibliography.

No, Lessing has not been indulging in the facile pleasantries of political correctness, whatever Harold Bloom, who also had an opinion about the Nobel Prize committee’s decision, might say about her (thereby revealing his own intellectual limitations).

In fact, she has spent much of her career mauling the self-comforting, self-satisfied ethical certainties with which she is now being falsely associated. In a 2001 interview, she rejected the very notion of political utopianism and pointed out its close links with madness – very much to the disappointment of the interviewer, who apparently had expected different opinions from Lessing. (Susie Linfield, “Against Utopia: An Interview with Doris Lessing,” Salmagundi 130/131 (2001): 59-74).

In her novel published in the same year, The Sweetest Dream, Lessing similarly dismantles the political pretensions of which she herself was an early adherent. In a narrative sweep spanning three decades, her story depicts the fractious domestic banality underpinning the high-flying political ideals amongst some of the more irrational individuals on the Left, especially through her portrayal of her character Johnny Lennox.

An archetypal self-appointed Marxist guru (are there any other kinds?), Comrade Johnny is busy organising the world revolution while neglecting his children and sponging off his former wife Frances. His talk infinitely bigger than his walk, he has a particular talent for getting others to pay his commitments and to take the fall for his failures.

When the novel opens, we meet Frances pondering a promising telegram she had received from Johnny three days before:

Experienced Lessing readers will know by the time they have finished reading the word ‘Fidel’ that the money he owes Frances will not be forthcoming. In fact, ‘Fidel’ is an efficient shorthand for ‘Johnny is an irresponsible bastard whose grandiose pseudo-revolutionary gestures conceal his real-world incapacities.’

A couple of pages later we meet the author of the momentous telegram in person, leaning ‘against the [kitchen] window, standing with his arms spread to take his weight on the sill [...] all bravado and – though he was not aware of that – apology.’

The image of Johnny ‘leaning’ against the window of course suggests his tendency to lean on others, an early hint at his pompously self-deluded personality that is the butt of Lessing’s sarcasm throughout the book – as it is here:

Around the table sat an assortment of youngsters, and [Johnny’s and Frances’s sons] Andrew and Colin were both there. All were looking towards Johnny, who had been holding forth about something, and all admiringly, except for his sons. They smiled, like the others, but the smiles were anxious. They, like [Frances] herself, knew that the money promised for today had vanished into the land of dreams (Why on earth had she told them? Surely she knew better!). It had all happened before. And they knew, like her, that he had come here now, when the kitchen would be full of young people, so he could not be greeted by rage, tears, reproaches – but that was the past, long ago.

Johnny spread out his arms, palms towards her, smiling painfully, and said, ‘The film’s off ... the CIA ...’ At her look he desisted, and was silent, looking nervously as his two boys.

‘Don’t bother,’ said Frances. ‘I really didn’t expect anything else.’ At which the boys turned their eyes to her; their concern for her made her even more self-reproachful.

She stood by the oven where various dishes were shortly to reach their moments of truth. Johnny, as if her back absolved him, began an old speech about the CIA whose machinations this time had been responsible for the film falling through.

Colin, needing some sort of anchor of fact, interrupted to ask, ‘But, Dad, I thought the contract ….’

Johnny said quickly, ‘Too many hassles. You wouldn’t understand … what the CIA wants, the CIA gets.’

Johnny is a typical Lessing radical – all mouth and no … well, you know what I mean; like Jasper in The Good Terrorist (1985) – another fashionable commie – he is a political performance artist whose survival relies on other peoples’ credulity as well as their hard work and generosity.

As Johnny is going around spreading the word (and a not insignificant amount of his seed), Frances does the nitty-gritty: feeding him as well as a multitude of semi-damaged individuals sheltering in and passing through her home (including a daughter he had fathered with another woman). To his rather pathetic end, Johnny exists in a world of his own, oblivious to the consequences of his actions, while Frances, however ambiguous her self-abandonment, at least takes responsibility for others – at much cost to her heart and bank account and, often, against her better judgement.

There is nothing utopian or politically correct about Lessing’s protagonist. Frances is Everywoman, trying to make do in a world of radically different individuals with conflicting interests and expectations, only to realize that, however hard one tries, there will always be plenty of loose ends left over. It’s those with the grand ideas that have it wrong: the café politicos and middle-class feminists wasting precious time making molehills into mountains. Consider Julie, Frances’s right-thinking journalist colleague at The Defender, a leftish daily modeled on The Guardian, who flies into

a fit of tearful rage when hearing on the radio that it was the female mosquito that is responsible for malaria. ‘The shits. The bloody fascist shits.’ When at last persuaded by Frances that this was a fact and not a slander invented by male scientists to put down the female sex – ‘Sorry, gender’ – she quietened into hysterical tears and said, ‘It’s all so bloody unfair’ (226).

Now, how many ‘politically correct’ feminist icons go around smacking the universal sisterhood upside the head with the more irrational bits of their creed? Like Lessing, Frances resists succumbing to ideology, although at the cost of being excluded from much of what is going on.

However, I would hate to give the impression that Lessing’s novels are all about petty conflicts and domestic squabbles. In The Sweetest Dream, as in other novels, Lessing takes the old feminist adage terribly seriously equating the personal and the political. The political silliness of Comrade Johnny & Co. has a catastrophic counterpart in a fictive postcolonial African country reigned by nepotism, corruption and empty revolutionary sloganeering. Where Johnny merely accumulates debts, those in charge of ‘Zimlia’ accumulate deaths.

The longstanding misjudgment of Lessing and her work, both by her supporters and detractors – with a few notable exceptions, such as Umberto Eco – suggests that this nomination for the Nobel Prize is more than well deserved.

Whatever the Reich-Ranickis and Schecks of this world might suggest, Doris Lessing is no intellectual, political or aesthetic lightweight: like the best writers, she resists labels and fashions and, far from being the chattering classes’ favourite comforter, has spent the last decades antagonizing precisely that stratum of society (often, it seems, without them noticing). The fact that she has done this without ‘playfully’ (how I hate that word!) fiddling with the fundamental precepts of reality and managed to resist the dogma of subversive metatextuality in favour of good old-fashioned realism, makes her all the more likeable and significant.

It is for precisely those reasons that we need Doris Lessing.



R. Sherman said...

Wonderful thoughts on Lessing.


Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

A very well argued defense of a sometimes willfully misunderstood author. I enjoyed it a lot. Thanks.

J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks for those...

But just to make it clear, since there seems to be some understandable confusion, this was written by The Wife...though I agree with everything she wrote.

And anyway, we find it hard enough to distinguish between us ourselves sometimes.

Thanks for reading!

The Wife said...

r. and sam,

Thank you for your comments. It's nice to know I'm not the only one who thinks Lessing has been done wrong by a certain type of "intellectual."

It's a pity that so many people who make their money writing about texts don't seem to be able to read them: even the bloody obvious bits.

All the best!