Doris Lessing
October 11, 2007
by William P. Meyers

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So Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Good for her. Apparently she is only the 11th woman to win the prize.

Her two most impressive books are THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOKa and The Four-Gated City. Now the pundits are calling The Golden Notebook a feminist breakthrough, but I did not see it that way when I read it in the mid-1970's. It was published in 1962 and only sold a few thousand copies at first. It is largely a meditation on being cast adrift in an alienating world. Which is exactly where I was when I read it as a young man. It is a bohemian work only in that its narrator rejects the conventional wisdom about life. It is about having mental breakdowns, but also about the healing process of giving up illusions about the world.

The Four-Gated City (The Children of Violence, Book 5)a is my personal favorite. It was published in 1969, when Dorris had become a major literary figure. I'm not sure how it would read to me now, 30 years after I first read it, but at the time it was a revelation. My memory is that it is a story of a woman's search for meaning while living in London. I think it was heavily influenced by Sufi traditions, but it is not overtly promoting mysticism. Rather it is an examination of everything by someone who had a great deal of worldly experience.

Ms. Lessing wrote some earlier books about her experiences in Africa, where being a part of the white supremicist class gave her the willies, and so she became a communist. By the time I got around to trying to read one from this series (I don't even remember which one, but it may have been A Ripple From the Storm) I was already far too familiar with leftist committee meetings. I might have been fascinated by such a book when I was seventeen, but by the time I tried to read it I found it tiresome and could not finish it.

Cheating by looking at the Doris Lessing Wikipedia page, I am reminded I read Briefing for a Descent into Hella, which was a compelling, scary book. It it had been published as Horror she would possibly be considered a master of the phychological horror story. I think mystical and in particularly Sufi ideas are even stronger in Descent.

As to her later works, I have not read them yet. They include some I mean to read, like The Good Terrorist and the Canopus in Argos science-fiction novel series.

I can't say Ms. Lessing has much appeal as a stylist , but she is competent and certainly prolific. The number of titles she has published is astounding. That is a problem with having some success as a writer: after that you spend the days of your life writing, rather than doing the much more interesting things that a less privileged person has to do to earn a living.

Looking through the list of people who have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I am shocked at how few of them I have read, and how many I have not heard of. I suppose I focussed on American writers. I have read most of what the big four American nobelists (William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, and Ernest Hemingway) and a couple of books by Pearl Buck. But I have not read much that is non-American.

So here is to Doris, who defied expectations by living long enough to get the Nobel Prize. Now she will be as immortal as a mortal can get: she will be remembered and read as long as school teachers must assign novels to students.


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