Doris Lessing: Hot Dawns
Written by Harvey Blume
Originally published in the Boston Book Review
Thank you to Harvey Blume and the Boston Book Review for permission to reprint this interview.
The creative dark. Incommunicable. And what about the pages discarded and thrown away, the stories that were misbegotten -- into the waste-paper basket, the ideas that lived in your mind for a day or two, or a week, but haven't any life, so out with them. What life, what is it, why is one page alive and another not, what is this aliveness, which is born so very deep, out of sight, fed by love?
HB: You know that Stephen King movie in which a woman kidnaps the writer and keeps him holed up as her own private novelist? Well, if this were a Stephen King movie and I could kidnap one novelist and keep her working for me it would be you.
-- from Walking in the Shade
HB: Yes. I love being in the company of your novels. You chronicle the Zeitgeist like no one else.
DL: I didn't set out to do it. I found that I was doing it. I must be on some wavelength or other, I don't know which. It's true I find often I have written about things that then happen.
HB: You've also contributed to the Zeitgeist. You're a writer who's had a lot of influence on people's lives.
DL: Couldn't that be exaggerated? You know, when people come to me and say, your books have changed my life, I think, hang on a minute. If you weren't ready to change, a single writer couldn't have changed you. This is a time of great change. What a tumult we live through!
HB: Rereading The Golden Notebook, I noticed that the changes you chronicle happened earlier than I thought they did. In the United States we had the Beats and then the huge counterculture in the late '60s but you're describing something that took place in England...
DL: In the '50s. It is now a belief that everything started in the '60s. Well, it didn't, you see. A lot of the things that we think started in the '60s started in the '50s, in fact. One of the things that was supposed to have started was the women's movement. But from the time I became political, which was about age 24, we sat around discussing women's issues. It didn't begin in the '60s at all.
HB: So you push it back earlier, unless England and the United States are different.
DL: No. The big difference between Europe and the United States is communism. You had a little tight beleaguered communist party here, very, very paranoid and always, because of this, much more dogmatic and ideological than its counterparts in Europe.
HB: I don't think of England as a country that had a huge communist movement.
DL: No, but look at Europe as a whole. For quite a few years I never met anybody who wasn't communist or hadn't been a communist.
HB: What a great paradox it must have been to have a group of people, the communists, mouthing the most idealistic slogans about humanity but corrupt to their core.
DL: They weren't personally corrupt. Their beliefs were stupid. I'm not talking about communist party bosses; in most countries they were corrupt. The average party member was usually a terribly decent citizen. But the belief was so stupid. Now you can't believe it -- what we all believed.
HB: You're very attuned to how what seemed eternal all of a sudden seems ridiculous.
DL: It disappears.
HB: And there's shock.
DL: I don't know if this is the right place for this great statement but looking back it seems to me a tragedy that we identified with the Soviet Union, which was by definition a failure, corrupt, and lied all the time. So the entire Left was always talking about the Soviet Union or defending it, identifying with failure. The Soviet Union had nothing to do with us, in fact. We could just as well have pursued our own aims in Europe without reference to it. If we'd done that, socialism would not now be a dead issue. Does that make sense?
HB: Perfect sense. On the other hand, it's hard to think of a Europe that wasn't shaped in that way.
DL: I know but sometimes you dream a little. I suppose somewhere I have a hankering after the old socialist dream.
HB: Now we're post-Left. Both the Old and New Lefts are over.
DL: Well, it seems to me the successor to communism is political correctness -- the terrible dogmatism, the intolerance. Movements get taken over by the hysterics, unfortunately.
HB: All mass movements?
DL: I do think so. It's a great pity.
HB: You write about the dream of progress that runs through the 20th century and say it was one of "grand revolutionaryromanticism; frightful sacrifices for the sake of paradises and heavens on earth and the withering away of the state;passionate dreams of utopia and wonderland and perfect cities; attempts at communes and commonwealths, at co-operatives and kibbutzes and kolkhozes..."
Then you speculate that dream is coming, mercifully, to an end. I would just want to suggest there might be one aspect of theZeitgeist you don't see-it may be less visible in England, but is going strong in the United States, particularly in places likeCambridge-and that is the dream of the digital utopia.
DL: I'm not entitled to talk about it because I'm not in tune with it. But what I feel is we are always running after our owninventions. We invent the most amazing things, and then try and catch up with them. As I'm sure I don't have to tell you, all thecomputers are going to be in a state of crisis at the turn of millennium. We didn't foresee this. We are a terribly careless lot of people.
We keep inventing things all the time and we don't know what the glitch is going to be. It's as if we're on some helter-skelter.We hardly have time to catch up with ourselves.
HB: You did a piece for The Guardian called "Between the Fax and the Fiction" in which you wrote: "It is for the next scientificdiscovery that we all wait, as once they did for the last chapter of a Dickens novel, with a cliff-hanger to keep us guessing until next time."
DL: It's not that I'm not madly in love with the novel and with literature, because I am, but where do we actually wait for news?It's from the scientists, and it's always so marvelous and extraordinary, and opens whole horizons. Look at this new starthey've just discovered! What a thrill. Every day it seems that extraordinary new horizons widen and widen.
HB: You're always wrestling with the role of the novel. There's the letter, reproduced in Walking in the Shade, that you wroteto E. P. Thompson in which you talk about the need for information, and ask what role the novel has in supplying it.
DL: One of the roles of the novel that's hardly noticed is that it informs us about new kinds of people or new ways of living ornew places. Try and imagine not having the novel; we would be very ignorant. If you're now going to say all that stuff is ontelevision and on the Internet, well, I don't think it is. You don't really get the feeling of a place anywhere except in a novel, not the real feeling.
HB: You say that for the most part reading novels is no different than reading journalism, and that only very few of the novels you read are novels in some other sense.
DL: True, only a few; there are a few great novels which are in a different realm altogether. But you can read novels for lots ofdifferent reasons. I read lots of not terribly good novels for information. There is a whole range of third world novels which arenot necessarily very good but teach you an enormous amount about the countries they come from.
HB: There's now a good deal of attention to writers from around the British commonwealth. Having grown up in Africa, do youfeel you are in that category?
DL: Yes, I do. I'm extremely lucky. Both my parents were quite excessively British. I have that as absolute bedrock. But I alsohave the other eye because I was brought up outside England. You couldn't have a luckier combination.
HB: You're also open to science fiction, and write about how parochial literary fiction is by comparison.
DL: Well, some of it. In England we have, as you probably know, the perennial English novel -- extremely good, wonderful,sensitive novels. And they come out every year and are suffocating as far as I'm concerned with their tight little horizons.
HB: You got savaged when you started writing your series of science fiction novels. John Leonard, in the New York Times,wrote about The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, that, "One of the many sins for which the 20th century will be heldaccountable is that it has discouraged Mrs. Lessing....She now propagandizes on behalf of our insignificance in the cosmicrazzmatazz." He felt you had ceased to care.
DL: What they didn't realize was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time. I also admire the classicsort of science fiction, like Blood Music, by Greg Bear. He's a great writer.
HB: I think you're one of the most important writers of the last half-century and it's extraordinary to me that you haven't won a Nobel Prize. I assume they have quotas-- time to recognize Jewish-American literature, time for Egyptian, African, Asian literature.
DL: They've got an Italian this time. From what they say about him, he sounds a very good choice.
HB: He might be wonderful but it seems absurd that they've managed to act as if you hadn't been writing for the last 50 years.
DL: Well, it doesn't do to worry about this kind of thing.
HB: I knew you would take that sort of tone about it.
DL: Also you do discover how enormously parochial we are. I hadn't heard of this marvelous Egyptian writer, who won the prize. Now I've been reading him, and he's wonderful.
HB: Still, it seems you're invisible in some way.
DL: I am, yes.
HB: Maybe because you're so hard to classify.
DL: It's also partly because there are good women writers who are invisible. One is Christina Stead. Have you ever read her? She's a marvelous writer. But she's invisible. In fact, Saul Bellow said, when he got the Nobel Prize, that it should have gone to hristina Stead. Try The Man Who Loved Children. There's a great treat in store for you.
HB: I've just read your last novel, Love, Again, and loved it. It's a heartbreakingly beautiful book.
DL: Well, I think it's a bit heartbreaking. My heart was breaking when I wrote it. Thank God that's over.
HB: It's heartbreaking because of what's being described and also because of how beautifully it is written. Unlike, say, The Golden Notebook, which is shattering in its own way -- it's as if you feel you haven't done your job if you don't shake readers to their core -- Love, Again is not about chronicling the Zeitgeist.
DL: No, it's not the Zeitgeist.
HB: There are times in your work when you use a raw approach, as if you are saying, this is raw, uncooked, almost documentary material. In Walking in the Shade, you frequently say something like, "and then this happened." Most writers wouldn't say something so plain as "then this happened." They'd perform some pirouette to get the reader from one place to another.
But Love, Again by contrast, is lyrical; it's an enormously lyrical book.
DL: I actually have a little theory on that. The theory is that romantic love of the classical kind and severe clinical depression can be linked with childhood miseries. There's a nexus there, which I try to bring out in the character of Stephen. Remember Stephen in the book, the one who was in love with the dead woman? In real life, he was a minor aristocrat who was in love with his great aunt, who was dead. Now if someone tells you he is in love with his great aunt, you laugh, don't you? But the man was obsessed, and in due course killed himself. So what was all that about, I ask you?
HB: You allude to Sarah's childhood in Love, Again, which she would prefer not to fully remember
DL: There are some ironies there. Sarah, who was the unloved one, was a much better human being than her brother, who was a monster. He was the favorite.
HB: It's a nicely structured book, too, framed by the troubadours and theater.
DL: Have you ever worked in the theater?
DL: Well, it can sometimes be as if the entire process is enchanted. There's a kind of collective trance going on. And then people wake up.
HB: In The Golden Notebook there's a kind of stasis. People can no longer go forward. There's no way through. So instead of break through, you get breakdown.
DL: In the second half of the '50s, what I was observing with the 150 percenters was that they break down. Their entire beings were involved with communism, like a religion. And suddenly the whole thing turned out to be a dream. They broke down, they went crazy. They also, not surprisingly, had religious conversions, which may be the same thing. Or they turned into their own opposites and became ruthless businessmen.
HB: You see the breakdown as in some ways refreshing, as in the case of Anna, the main character.
DL: Some people are much improved by it.
HB: Anna -- I'm tempted to say Molly because in your books there's almost always a Molly in the works -- fills her walls with cut-outs from the news. She's plastered to the Zeitgeist.
DL: I wrote that and heard some months later about a man who was actually doing it. Every inch of the walls of his apartment was covered with newspaper. He went completely mad, not surprisingly.
HB: You've written, "I don't believe that I have a thought. There is a thought around." When Anna breaks down in The Golden Notebook, she has all these people in her head. Not only do ideas enter her head, but so do personae, and she has to live with all of them, as so does her lover, Saul Green, aka Clancy Sigal.
DL: Clancy wrote a novel in which I was a main character. I never read it. You know, it's a great mistake to read these pieces. You get cross and think that was untrue and get into polemics. What's the point of it?
I know nobody believes me. When I say I haven't read this novel of his, people get a very ironical look, but the fact is I haven't. On purpose.
HB: He wrote a piece for the Times about living with you, and what it was like to be a writer living with another writer.
DL: Oh, it's not a good idea. You know, Clancy's a very fast writer, and a brilliant observer. He wrote brilliant journalism. Try a little book called Weekend In Dinlock about a short stay in a mining village. It's brilliant. I'm always amazed he's not given credit for it.
HB: In Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, you talk about the social sciences bringing us knowledge of ourselves, not very flattering information about how we actually behave. You say we should attend to this information, find a way of using it. But you don't say how.
DL: The more we know about ourselves, the more we can choose how to behave. There was a chap in Canada -- and I'm going to leave it vague because nobody really approves of this kind of research -- who used brainwashing techniques. He would take, say, a Seventh Day Adventist and make this person a Roman Catholic, then two days later change the set of beliefs again into, oh, I don't know, Jewish, then later make the person a follower of Ian Paisley, and at the end of the time would turn this person back to the original set of beliefs.
Now this seems to me an original piece of research we have chosen not to notice. What does that say about beliefs? What does it say about us? Doesn't it strike you as something we might pay attention to?
HB: But how do we use this kind of information?
DL: Let us say we now decide to set up a little group or movement to do something or other. There's a lot of information about the dynamics of groups. They nearly always develop leadership problems. They very often split in certain recognized ways. None of them ever end up where they were supposed to. Why doesn't anyone say, this is likely to happen so how do we stop it? How do we recognize a mad power lover who's using the words of idealism and doesn't even know he's a power lover? We could actually start thinking instead of emoting.
HB: Some of your writing works like that, like a probe: let's see how this situation or that group of people work. There's an experimental aspect to it.
DL: Yes, I think so. When I write I am all the time amazed at what I'm thinking, amazed at what I learn because I've been too lazy to think it before.
HB: You've written about the Sufis, and what you emphasize is their attention to the Zeitgeist, their dispassionate look at what is possible for human beings at a given time and place.
DL: There's a bit I quote at the beginning of Walking in the Shade where Idries Shah points out that until we understand what makes us tick, we're not going to change. He puts it more eloquently. What I admire about the Sufis, apart from any other dimension that they have, is their extraordinary sharpness. Idries Shah had the sharpest, most critical mind of anyone I've ever known. Listening to him talk for an hour, your brain used to rock with his comments on society and the world. Incredibly acute and I admired that. He died, you know.
HB: Yes, I read your appreciation. There's a website, a Doris Lessing website, which contains some of your occasional writings.
DL: A fan did that. I was very grateful to her.
HB: In Walking in the Shade you allude to the easy dismissal of religion, that takes no effort or thought. But now religious fundamentalism is a very powerful force. And it does cost something to oppose it.
DL: You'd never believe, when I was young, we genuinely believed religious wars were over. We'd say, at least it's impossible to have a religious war now. Can you believe that?
HB: In a piece you wrote in 1992, you said, "I am sure that millions of people, the rug of communism pulled out from under them, are searching frantically, and perhaps not even knowing it, for another dogma." Don't you think religion and nationalism have entered to fill the void almost immediately?
DL: And political correctness, which has an appalling effect on academic life. Universities are being ruined by it. Freedom of thought has been destroyed. And that is bigotry.
I'm so afraid of religion. Its capacity for murder is terrifying.
HB: Last question. There's a poem in Love, Again, an exquisite poem, and I wondered where it came from:
Do you imagine it is because of you, conceited youth,
That I lie awake weeping?
Rather it's because how often I've said,
No, no, no, just like you now,
Thinking that all my life
There would be sweet hot dawns and kisses.
DL: I'm glad you like it. I wrote it for that book.
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