Doris Lessing: how the Nobel Prize winning storyteller kept me reading
I read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook while living in a town two hours north of Barcelona. It was 1976, in the first year after Franco died, the beginning of what everyone hoped would be a new, post-fascist Spain, though it was hard to imagine with the national police on every corner, carrying rifles.
The Catalans feared a another civil war. The nobility and bourgeoisie were busy stashing their money in Swiss bank accounts. Basque terrorists were busy blowing up cars. And Dolores Ibárruri (La Pasionaria) was about to return to Spain after more than 30 years of exile in the Soviet Union, which rattled the Spanish Communist Party members who were busy distancing themselves from their Stalinist past.
The only news we could trust came from the radio we clustered around once a week to hear BBC World Service.
Context is important here because the atmosphere of The Golden Notebook spoke to me more deeply in these circumstances than it might have done otherwise.
Lessing’s novel, set in wartime Rhodesia and post-war London, helped to illuminate the experience of WW II and its aftermath, setting the stage for the world in which I then found myself.
More than anything, I think, it was the broad sweep of Lessing’s mind that arrested me, and her unfailing insistence upon telling the truth as she saw it, however that changed and evolved over time. A fierce idealist, Lessing joined and then repudiated the Communist Party. Though championed by feminists, she referred to their rhetoric as ”exaggerated, hysterical rubbish.”
But it was the intensely personal nature of her fiction, its emotional depth and intricacy, that kept me reading.
I was a young writer, and Doris Lessing gave me hope.
Four days before her death, I bought a copy of her novella, Adore, which included her address to the Swedish Academy, a speech her publisher delivered in Stockholm because Lessing was too ill to be there herself.
In it, Lessing describes a school in Zimbabwe “without books, without textbooks, or an atlas, or even a map pinned to a wall.”
She asks us to imagine a scene “in an Indian store, in a poor area, in a time of bad drought. There is a line of people, mostly women, with every kind of container for water.”
In the line stands a pregnant woman with her two other children “clutching at her legs.” She is reading “a wadge of paper that looks as if it has been torn from a book. She is reading Anna Karenin.
Lessing goes on to remind writers of “the essential question,” the ground conditions required for writing.
“Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas—inspiration.”
She reminds us of our great privilege:
“We have a treasure-house of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans. It is all there, this wealth of literature, to be discovered again and again by whoever is lucky enough to come upon it. A treasure. Suppose it did not exist. How impoverished, how empty we would be.
“We own a legacy of languages, poems, histories, and it is not one that will ever be exhausted. It is there, always.
“We have a bequest of stories, tales from the old storytellers, some of whose names we know, but some not. The storytellers go back and back, to a clearing in the forest where a great fire burns, and the old shamans dance and sing, for our heritage of stories began in fire, magic, the spirit world. And that is where it is held, today.
“Ask any modern storyteller and they will say there is always a moment when they are touched with fire, with what we like to call inspiration, and this goes back and back to the beginning of our race, to the great winds that shaped us and our world.
“The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us -- for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.”