Doris Lessing. Mentor or Monster?

The city of Paris introduced me to Doris Lessing when I was twenty years old. I was living there alone and homesick when I wandered into the Shakespeare and Company at 37 Rue de la Bucherie, a croissant’s throw from Notre Dame. It was a glorious place, books lining the walls like wall paper, books lining the floor like walls. I was convinced that if I just stayed quiet enough I could stay all night and not be discovered.

One day I discovered The Golden Notebook. I still remember my eyes devouring the first pages, first propping myself up against a book case, then hunching down and finally just flat out collapsing in comfort to the floor to read what to me was a revelation: a woman’s intimate, psychological life written by a woman, in its intricate, no apologies way.

In the years since I have read many of her books: The Grass is Singing, Briefing for a Descent into Hell,  The Good Terrorist, The Fifth Child and The Memoirs of a Survivor. I worshiped her from afar.

Then one day I read about how she had abandoned her first two children.

It shook me to my core.

Granted, when I read it I had two young children and was hyped up with oxytocin. But I was appalled at her decision to abandon her children for her literary career. As I tried to type out my word count amidst baby bottles and tantrums and the endless chaos of a young family household, I understood her motive. Oh, indeed I did. But I could not condone it. And I certainly couldn’t see past it. From then on, every time I read her books I thought, Well, must be niiiice.

Once my hormones and children were under better control, I reconsidered. After all, even without my ‘gorgeous’ children I knew I would not be so prolific, so erudite, so revolutionary as Doris Lessing. And certainly not on the receiving end of a Nobel Prize. And so I gave her the benefit of non-judgement: something, of course, I owe all people (well most) and began to enjoy her novels again.

Until I read about her attitude toward the women’s liberation movement. ‘The battles have all been won,’ she said, ‘except for equal pay for equal work.’

And I thought Hey! You! You’re pushing it!

Don’t tell me the field has been leveled. Childcare is overwhelmingly done by women, violence is overwhelmingly done to women, poverty is overwhelmingly thrust upon women.

To say otherwise is to abandon the issue.

When I heard she had died yesterday, I felt the passing of a defining literary figure. In more ways than one. We all make our choices. We live with them, we die with them. I owe her respect and yes, admiration.

I like to remember her as one of the commentators did in the Guardian today:

“Very sad to hear of the death of Doris Lessing. I saw her talk at the British Council in Harare in 1995. She was one of the writers I wrote when I was working, through VSO, teaching English in a rural Zimbabwean Secondary School, Chatiza High School near Mutoko. I asked each writer to send a copy of a book which I thought would be inspiring for the students, for the school library . I asked Doris Lessing for a copy of ‘African Laughter’, where she writes about building school libraries in rural schools. She didn’t send me one copy, she sent me a case load of books. And made sure that they were delivered directly to school. An inspirational woman.”

Indeed.

R.I.P Doris Lessing

photo by xjyxjy (flickr)

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Doris Lessing. Mentor or Monster?

  1. She was quite the controversial woman. I enjoyed your insight in this post.

  2. ninakillham

    Thank you, Suzanne. She was what an intellectual should be. She made you think. x

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