12 October 2007

A Few Small, Personal Thoughts on Doris Lessing

There are few awards that much interest me these days, but I look forward to the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature every year, not because I think it's more legitimate than any of the others, but because it's so often weirdly surprising, and now and then it goes to a writer I quite respect. The choice of Doris Lessing this year surprised me mostly because she's been rumored for it so long that I was sure her time had passed, especially since most of her work since her autobiographies hasn't gained much acclaim.

As for me, I can't claim to be devoted to Lessing the way I am to Coetzee and Pinter, but I did go through a Lessing phase eight or nine years ago, and read many of her books. Which doesn't mean I'm an expert, by any means -- she's so prolific I don't think I read even half of her novels. Maybe a quarter. (I gave a lot of them away, and the ones I kept are in a box in New Hampshire, so I don't have any at hand. Thus, my memories are more impressions than anything specific.)

The Lessing books that I remember being most affected by include some of her most famous -- The Golden Notebook, certainly, and The Four-Gated City (about which John Leonard said, "On finishing this book, you want to go out and get drunk.") -- but also some of the ones nobody else ever seemed to like, such as Mara and Dann, a book I haven't dared re-read, because when I first read it I found it so emotionally affecting that I'm terrified to try again, in case, under different circumstances and moods, I might find more to agree with in the bad reviews. I had mixed feelings about The Good Terrorist, but certain scenes from it remain in my mind, even if most of the characters and plot points have been utterly forgotten.

The Lessing books that I remember most clearly are The Fifth Child and its sequel, Ben, in the World. The first is a knockout of a novella, a profoundly disturbing and alienating book. The second recasts the whole thing, as if one writer had written both Beowulf and Grendel. Taken together, the books are marvels of manipulation, and show just how severely a writer can reconfigure our sympathies. Or, to view the books less metafictionally, they offer a dialectical evisceration of such abstract, often dangerous, ideas as human nature, innocence, and evil. If you want to quickly see the power Lessing is capable of conjuring, read The Fifth Child and then immediately follow it with Ben, in the World.

But then I didn't continue to read Lessing. I stopped after trying multiple times to read The Sweetest Dream, every time finding it turgid, though I had so desperately wanted to like it. I suppose I stopped because I didn't want to happen with her what had happened to me after I overindulged in the work of an even more prolific and uneven writer, Joyce Carol Oates. I devoured Oates's books and stories for more than a year, and after initially being in awe of everything she wrote, I soon enough found more of it to be frustrating than pleasing, and even the work that had initially drawn me in began to seem lackluster. I didn't want that to happen with my reading of Lessing.

Now that I've gained some distance from my initial fascination, though, there are Lessing books I hope to read, and others I look forward to returning to, particularly The Four-Gated City.

My greatest amusement with Lessing becoming a Nobel Laureate, though, is that this -- as Patrick Nielsen Hayden pointed out -- gives us the first Nobel Prize in Literature winner who was also a Guest of Honor at a World Science Fiction Convention (in 1987).