Sunday, November 17, 2013

Doris Lessing

Before I finish reading the New York Times obituary for Doris Lessing, who died today, I thought I would write down one of my most vivid impressions from her novels. Of course it's from The Golden Notebook. And I've added the relevant quotes from the review.

What I remember: one of the central women in the book is working through her feelings about Stalin, both internally and through discussions and fights with her fellow left-wingers and communist party members. She also is working through psychoanalysis, so she's very aware of her dreams, including day dreams or fantasies. Her fantasy that I recall is that Stalin asks her advice about what he should do to be a better leader -- and she tells him how to solve whatever problem she sees as critical. I think she writes this down in one of her many color-coded notebooks but I think in the red, not the golden, notebook.

Then, unless I'm recalling the book wrong after all these years, the character finds out that virtually every communist has the same fantasy of explaining to Stalin what he needs to do. Somehow this captured some fundamental thing for me, about the way that political idealists thought. [And says the NYT review: "Ms. Lessing wrote that she had intended the novel to capture the chaotic period after the Soviet Union denounced Stalinism. Under the pressure of the revelations about Stalin’s crimes, the movement that had been the glue of her social and intellectual circle came undone."]

I've read many of Lessing's other books, including the entire Martha Quest series which changes genres at the last book, a feat I always admired. The first several books are an old-fashioned coming of age story of the meaningfully named Martha Quest as she grows up in a British colony of Africa and eventually gets away from her boring background. The last is a distopia set long into the future -- though now it's no longer the future, and our hindsight tells us it didn't quite happen that way. [Says the review: "The weighty series of books… remolds some of the issues and situations treated in 'The Golden Notebook': war, Communism, sex, abortion, domestic violence, abandoning children, psychoanalysis and breakdown. But the series reaches forward to the next millennium and the destruction of the earth."]

Lessing's later books were entirely different from these early ones -- like the last Martha Quest novel, The Four-Gated City, they are mainly set in distopian futures, or in one case a sort of combination of the past and the future. I liked them, but not as much as I liked the earlier ones. What I don't know is how much I would like the earlier ones if I reread them now, so much later in time and in my life.

The NYT review cites a number of facts from Lessing's autobiography, which I've never read. Perhaps I'll read it now. I'm sorry to hear that she's gone; she was a very great writer.

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