Fans of British Novelist Doris Lessing talk about a composite character called the Lessing Woman in much the same way as people once talked about the Hemingway Man. The Lessing Woman is a formidable female. She hasn't been to a university but she has read everything and remembers it. Her ideals are high and unsullied. She works (or has worked) at lost political causes. Although she loathes marriage, she gamely raises children and endures domestic woes. She cooks well, keeps a spotless house (except when depressed) and does excellent writing, research or secretarial work. She is any man's moral and intellectual superior, and she rarely hesitates to tell him so.
I was being domestic this morning, cleaning. For some reason I opened a drawer I almost never open. In it are some old work contracts, an address book, and, for some reason, two books that I keep separate from all the other hundreds of books in the house: Kwiaty Polskie, a volume of poetry by Julian Tuwim, in Polish; and Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. I took out the Notebook and fondled it; I like the feel of my edition, I like the look of all its not quite gold-hued lines. Not an hour later, in a meeting with the rep for my daughter's education fund, my phone alerted me that Doris Lessing had died.
My first Lessing book was The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five, in a course on dystopian fiction, when I was 18. I've been reading Lessing regularly ever since.
The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, Prelude. Music, Philip Glass; libretto, Doris Lessing.
Monique Beudert Memorial Lecture
Margaret Atwood, The Guardian: "She was political in the most basic sense."
Lorna Sage, The Guardian: "Commitment was one of the things from which she weaned herself away."
Lisa Allardice, The Guardian: "Lessing seemed to have an almost uncanny genius for pre-empting problems or social change."
Maev Kennedy, The Guardian: "Few writers have as broad a range of subject and sympathy."
Boyd Tonkin, The Independent: "Crucially, she also shook the dust of successive movements, styles and ideologies from her ever-restless feet: communism; feminism; psychoanalysis; social realism."
Charlie Jane Anders, io9: "Lessing was a master of combining characters with rich inner lives with a general hint of strangeness in the world around them."
Helen T. Verongos, The New York Times: "She divorced herself from all 'isms'."
Vicki Barker, NPR: "She was a campaigner against racism, a lover, an ardent communist, and a serial rescuer of cats."
Gaby Wood, The Telegraph: "How many women can be said to have been thought of as an Angry Young Man?"
Elaine Showalter, The Washington Post: "Cantankerous, irascible, outspoken, she thrived on controversy and outrage."
"How I Finally Lost My Heart"
"Our Friend Judith"
The Fifth Child
The Golden Notebook
The Good Terrorist
Mara and Dann
Memoirs of a Survivor
The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog
A quick review of this blog shows that I've managed to mention Doris Lessing while writing about Jim Crace, Jeanette Winterson, Keith Scribner, Lionel Shriver, Allen Kurzweil, China Miéville, Penelope Mortimer. She is a baseline. (And of there writers, I think only Miéville is in the same league as her, of the same ilk.)
Thank you, Doris Lessing, for introducing me to Patrick Hamilton, George Gissing, Anna Kavan. And for planting the idea that Charles Dickens would be good in bed (Tolstoy, not so much).
I do not believe that one can be changed by a book (or by a person) unless there is already something present, latent or in embryo, ready to be changed. Books have influenced me all my life. I could say as an autodidact — a condition that has advantages and disadvantages — that books have made me what I am. But it is hard to say of this book or that one: it changed me. How about War and Peace? Fathers and Sons? The Idiot? The Scarlet and the Black? Remembrance of Things Past? But now they all seem dazzling stages in a long voyage of discovery, which continues.
So I cannot say that Doris Lessing changed me, but she helped me recognize that I was ready to be changed, on several occasions.