Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Inspiration, and hard work

If I could choose any living author with whom to sit and chat over a bottle of wine, Doris Lessing would be it. Not given that opportunity, I took some time last week, finally, bundled in pyjamas and blankets, tea and cold medication at my side, to watch Doris Lessing deliver the first Monique Beudert Memorial Lecture, "a series of events that focus on literary writers and their relationship to visual culture" (recorded in December).

The lecture purports to be about images in literature from visual art. Where do writers draw their inspiration? Lessing says we make things too simple; people tend to offer banal answers — composites of acquaintances, a dream, a picture reminds one of a character.

But there must be more to it? Something deeper? That a picture, as an indirect inference, corresponds with one's view of life.

Virginia Woolf describes, she says, an old woman's mind as an opening of doors, letting in a stream of ideas and associations.

With age, space and time become extremely fluid. Every face one encounters reminds one of other faces, in other times and different places.

The webcast is over an hour long, with the first 25 minutes, and then some at the end, devoted to Proust and Vermeer's yellow patch of sunlight.

This is difficult for me to summarize. Lessing rambles and digresses through her mind's labyrinth of associations, and connections are not always evident. Is it contradictory then for me to say what I admire most about her is her straightforwardness? She says what she thinks. And she thinks a great deal.

Mara and Dann is an adventure story (possibly, she confides, soon to be an animated film) with that most classic element of stories found the world over: orphan children.

Set in the future, Europe is in an ice age. She pictures it like the mountains in the background of Brueghel's "Hunters in the Snow," a poster of which she has hanging on a door: unnatural and otherworldly, not a real part of Brueghel's countryside, improbable, mythical mountains of snow.

Now there is sequel, The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog.

Mara's daughter looks like this:

Because she does. This painting ("The Parasol," Goya) makes Lessing feel like she's being stroked like a cat.

What strikes me most from this lecture is what she unwittingly divulges about her writing process. She knows the end, knows her characters; she still allows for minor characters to pop up, some unexpected incidents to occur, but she knows where's she going, she knows the shape of the thing. Yet for the first time — remarkably I think, for a woman of 89 years who has published scads of novels — in Griot did a character "take on a life of his own." She always knows how things turn out, but not so with Griot.

(Remarkable, I say, because I read and hear often about writers discussing the ease of writing: characters simply come to life, stories write themselves. I wonder how many of them are lying, what is their motivation in perpetuating the myth of the inspired artist, in denying the hard work; does their reliance on that myth condemn them to lesser accomplishments, relinquish them of the responsibility to do hard work; can they be serious writers?)

So an hour after having raised the question about the source of inspiration, she answers it honestly. Sometimes things come in dreams. How can one know why something draws you, inspires you? But it does. Perhaps one shouldn't ask. "Where do all these things come from? They come from everywhere."

Through all her rambling runs a thread of... melancholy? A weight of the world, a weight of wisdom. And cynicism and even anger (at Alexander the Great, and Banda; how the media is a mechanism in keeping life tame, ordinary, boring; her lost Africa). She talks about humankind's destructive tendencies and her despair if she thinks about it too much — better to pretend it isn't there. And yet. What we destroy, we will rebuild. It won't necessarily be better, but it will persevere.

Lessing would like to be remembered as a hard worker. "Life is really very hard work."

(Why, why, why do I have such a hard time writing about Doris Lessing? It's not for lack of anything to say, it's my inability to break it down, to do so concisely. It's too big somehow. Lessing says, "The human mind, can't stand too much complexity, I've come the conclusion. We have to simplify things." I think she's right, and I think she implies that this is not necessarily the right way to grapple with life, and I agree with that, and this is very much what The Golden Notebook was about for me, insofar as compartmentalizing is an attempt to simplify. Our efforts to simplify often have the opposite effect. Maybe I should stop trying to say anything about Doris Lessing, just delight in the ideas sparked and tangents followed.)

I've not yet read The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, but I plan to. In case you're wondering, there will not be another book in this story — what happens after this novel leaves off is obvious, and Lessing has nothing more to say about it.

Recent interview: San Francisco Chronicle.
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