My first venture into Doris Lessing came only in April this year. The Grass is Singing, which had lingered in a bedroom floor pile since Christmas, seemed like an ideal read for a flight to Innsbruck; four days later, I embarked on the return journey with a bookmark now midway through The Golden Notebook. Within weeks, the author had been firmly promoted to bookshelf status, and became the principal focus of my finals. It therefore struck an initial chord of regret that my newly-prized literary idol should recently pass away, my appreciation of her extraordinary talents only in mid-bloom.
A writer of intelligence and revolution, a mind of breadth and depth, and a human of integrity and justice, Lessing is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century. She engaged exhaustively with the various political and sociological currents of her lifetime: the appalling realities of racial injustice in her native Rhodesia, the fragmentation of the inner self in the dawn of a post-war society, and the changing relations between men and women in the rising backdrop of feminism. There is no single novel that can encapsulate her genius; indeed, her very aesthetic is one of an all-encompassing, ever-probing, mould-breaking worldview.
It thus seems for obvious reasons that the loss of such a wise and worldly voice should mark a sad occasion far beyond the usual literary circles. But as I sat in admiration at the fulsome ninety-four years of life that Lessing so formidably led, I contemplated what difference her death should make to my appreciation of her fiction. The reality? Wonderfully enough, none.
The beauty of the artist is that he never truly dies; his work continues to live and breathe in the space of a present or future context. We regularly discuss what Martin Luther King did, and yet what Chekhov does; we observe that ‘Gandhi led…’, whereas ‘Gaudí creates…’. Figures such as Vincent van Gogh, El Greco and Emily Bronte might even be considered more alive today than in their own lifetimes. It is the attainment of a supreme kind of immortality that gives the artist a liberating stature, one which Lessing has already inherited. The universality of her perspectives, her understanding of those common denominators residing timelessly within the human condition, are voices which will echo on with changing sounds.
While others mourn the sad loss of Doris Lessing, it seems more befitting to celebrate the tenacity of a mind well penned and a literary authority well embraced. (I found it a strangely apt discovery that she should have been ‘Mrs. Doris Wisdom’ before remarrying as Lessing, a precusor of the legacy she was to leave behind in her ensuing lifetime). A handful of her gems are featured below.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to savour the many remaining books of an author who is still very much alive.
“A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.”
On her perceived connection with feminism: “What the feminists want of me is something they haven’t examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, ‘Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.’ Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I’ve come with great regret to this conclusion.”
On writing The Golden Notebook: “This novel, then, is an attempt to break a form; to break certain forms of consciousness and go beyond them. While writing it, I found I did not believe some of the things I thought I believed: or rather, that I hold in my mind at the same time beliefs and ideas that are apparently contradictory. Why not? We are, after all, living in the middle of a whirlwind.”
“I’m just a story teller. I have to . . . I have to. I’m very unhappy when I’m not writing. I need to write. I think it’s possibly some kind of psychological balancing mechanism–but that’s not only true for writers . . . anybody. I think that we’re always . . . just a step away from lunacy anyway, and we need something to keep us balanced.”
“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.
It seems to me that the urgent challenge now, given the fierce wind and widening gyre of incurious, ill-informed (yet complacently certain) minds is how to instill in people the love of reading. In our increasingly complex, interdependent reality urgency had never been a more important watchword. The directive is clear. So, now, I leave it to the best minds (like yours) to come up with a solution to our appalling unwillingness to use the critical thinking abilities our DNA struggled to bequeath us climbing down from the trees.
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