A Notorious Life

Dwight Garner interviews Doris Lessing, author of 'The Golden Notebook,' and the new memoir, 'Walking in the Shade.'

Published November 11, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

doris Lessing's two volumes of autobiography -- "Under My Skin" (1995) and "Walking in the Shade" (published this fall) -- are striking exceptions to the rule that even extraordinary novelists tend to lead rather ordinary lives. It's impossible to read these books (a third installment is planned) without feeling the rude, healthy glow of a life fully lived.

Both books are full of Lessing's shrewd, no-nonsense language and observations. "Under My Skin" evoked her bumptious childhood in Southern Rhodesia (she was the child of British parents) as well as her two failed marriages, her burgeoning political awareness and her growing sense that she would have to abandon the comfortable arc of her life in order to become a writer. "Walking in the Shade" picks up Lessing in 1949, when she moved to London with her young son shortly after the publication of her first novel, "The Grass is Singing," and follows her through 1962.
In "Walking in the Shade," we witness Lessing flexing her muscles, displaying the restless intellect that would become the hallmark of her literary career. Few are the writers whose work has been as influential, and as difficult to pin down. Lessing's work includes "The Grass is Singing," a critique of racial politics in Rhodesia; that novel was followed, over the course of 17 years, by the five autobiographical novels in her "Children of Violence" series, including "Martha Quest" and "The Four-Gated City." In 1962, Lessing published "The Golden Notebook," her most famous, controversial and stylistically daring novel, which influenced a generation of female readers and writers. Lessing has also ventured into science fiction in a series called "Canopus in Argos: Archives." Her more recent work includes "The Good Terrorist" (1986), a satire about romantic politics, and "Love, Again" (1996) about, among other things, the possibilities of romance and love at an advanced age.

Writing may be a solitary occupation, but "Walking in the Shade" makes it clear that Lessing found time for other things. The book is one of the best accounts yet of how communism dominated the intellectual life of the time, and Lessing often found herself in the political forefront. But this supple memoir is also full of more personal preoccupations. Lessing evokes the feel of drab, gray postwar London; she also captures what it was like to be a single parent in the 1940s and 1950s. The book is crammed with friends and lovers (many of them well-known), and it is an elegy to an almost forgotten time -- the beginning of the sexual revolution, when almost everyone drank too much, smoked too much and had perhaps just a bit too much sex.

Lessing spoke with Salon in New York, where she was promoting "Walking in the Shade." Now 79, Lessing remains vigorous -- with her center-parted hair that's pulled back into a bun and her steely eyes, she seems like a tightly wound earth mother. Among the many subjects she spoke about were the current state of publishing, the trouble with feminism, the death of Princess Diana and how a generation fell out of love with communism.

When you move to London from Southern Rhodesia, at the beginning of this book, it is 1949. You're not only a single mother but a woman who has been twice married and divorced. Was there a social stigma attached to these things?

The term "single parent" had not yet been coined, but there were other single parents around. We didn't know we were peculiar. I was already an oddball, in any event, beginning in Southern Rhodesia. Not because of my marriages, but because I was a Kaffir-lover and a Red. A Kaffir-lover being a million times worse than being a Red in that society. I was very disliked for that reason. The few of us who had those views were hated and ostracized.

Uncle Joe [Stalin] was very much a favorite amongst us. It was OK, us being Reds during the war, because we were all on the same side. But then the Cold War started. Almost overnight we became enemies of people who were close friends -- they crossed the street to avoid us. When I came to England, it was very down because of the war. Everybody I met had just come back from some fighting front or had been through the war. It was a pretty grim scene, really. London was unpainted and gray and flat. The coffee was undrinkable. The food was unspeakable. And the clothes were ghastly. I was very excited to be there for cultural reasons. But the war had created a frame of mind which now is very hard to put yourself back into. Nobody cared about having any money, because nobody had any money. You didn't think about it particularly. And what is now common -- defining yourself by what you wore or what you owned or what you ate -- that absolutely would be considered vulgar in the extreme.

You write somewhere that you had a particularly hard time conveying two things -- one, the atmosphere of the Cold War, and two, how different the publishing scene was.

These are the two most difficult things, I think.

Why the Cold War?

It permeated everything. There was a perpetual war-fear. I was reminded of it the other day when a man, now middle-aged, said, "Do you realize that my entire childhood and the childhood of all us children was terror of the bomb?" It was a very poisonous atmosphere, very paranoid. It meant that everyone's reactions were extreme. Either for or against.

Capitalism was dead. It was done and finished. And the future was socialist or communist. We were going to have justice, equality, fair pay for women, cripples, blacks -- everything, in a very short time. This nonsense was believed by extremely intelligent people. That's what interests me.

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You call these beliefs a kind of mass hypnosis.

I call it mass psychopathology. Because what we believed was rubbish. It had absolutely nothing to do with what was going on in the world.

But it was such a heady kind of belief, wasn't it? Was it truly all rubbish?

Look, most of it was rubbish. But it had an enormous emotional charge behind it, which meant that people could achieve more if they believed this kind of thing. You know, if you are fueled by this pure belief, amazing things get done.

You write about all of these interesting, caring, passionate people who put so much work into their belief in communism, and what they got in return was Stalin. It was a cruel kind of a joke.

Well, that's why socialism is, for our time, dead. Because young people say, "Right, all you Reds -- look what you were supporting. China and the Soviet Union." The interesting thing is to ask yourself this question: Why were the Europeans bothered about the Soviet Union at all? It was nothing to do with us. China had nothing to do with us. Why were we not building, without reference to the Soviet Union, a good society in our own countries? But no, we were all -- in one way or another -- obsessed with the bloody Soviet Union, which was a disaster. What people were supporting was failure. And continually justifying it. That had a disastrous effect on -- this is another clichi, forgive me -- progressive thinking of every kind.

You compare that kind of progressive thinking to today's political correctness, to use another clichi. How true is that?

I think it is true. I think the attitudes of mind behind it are the same.

What are those attitudes?

A need to oversimplify. To control. And an enormous distrust of the innovative, of new ideas. All political movements are like this -- we are in the right, everyone else is in the wrong. The people on our own side who disagree with us are heretics, and they start becoming enemies. With it comes an absolute conviction of your own moral superiority. There's oversimplification in everything, and a terror of flexibility. This characterizes political correctness.

Your book is, in many ways, about falling out of love with communism. For you it was perhaps easier than most, because you cared far more about your writing than about politics. But it must have been difficult for a lot of people to admit that they were wrong about communism.

This process was going on right from the beginning. I'm talking about the Soviet Union -- people seeing what it was like and leaving. Everywhere you went you met people who had been communists and understood perfectly well the perils of the dream, and were now angry with themselves for falling for it. I think [this interest in communism] was rooted in the First World War and people's passionate identification with what had been done to the soldiers, which crossed all the national boundaries. I think that's where a disgust and contempt for government began, at the level we see it now. The automatic reaction of practically any young person is, at once, against authority. That, I think, began in the First World War because of the trenches, and the incompetence of the people on all fronts. I think that a terrible bitterness and anger began there, which led to communism. And now it feeds terrorism. Anyway, that's my thesis. It's very oversimplified, as you can see.

Did your political experiences, and the fact that you led a vigorous exterior life, help you as a writer? Does a writer need to participate in the events of his or her day?

No. You see, I wasn't like the ones for whom the Communist Party was literally their education, or their family. When communism collapsed, for these people it was such a tragedy. I wasn't like that. I was definitely sorry for them. A lot of people committed suicide.

You describe writing as a kind of "wool-gathering." It's a slow, difficult process. How did you manage to raise a child alone, be so involved with politics and still find time to write?

I wasn't all that much involved with politics, that's the thing. I have described the highlights -- like going to the Soviet Union, or getting involved with Africans, and the Northern Rhodesians, which means Zambian Africans. But in between, I had very little to do. I was a member of the Communist Party writers group. I attended about eight or 10 meetings.

So it wasn't that hard to find time to write?

Yes, it was hard. But all work is hard. I didn't have any social life to speak of. That made it easier. Young writers, I think, have a great deal of difficulty with that.

Were you surprised at the criticism you received after writing, in your first book, about leaving the kids from your first marriage behind you?

Of course I wasn't surprised. The thing was that this was a terrible thing to do, but I had to do it because I have no doubt whatsoever if I had not done it, I would have become an alcoholic or ended in the loony bin. I couldn't stand that life. I just couldn't bear it. It's this business of giving all the time, day and night, trying to conform to something you hate. Nobody can do it without going crazy. My husband was a civil servant who became increasingly high in the ranks. He couldn't afford a wife who had [radical ideas]. I wouldn't have lasted. I became friends with the kids later, and the grandkids, and so on. I'm not pretending that anything terrible didn't happen.

You said just now that if you'd stayed, you would have become an alcoholic. I want to pick up on that.

Or cracked up. One or the other.

You've written quite a lot about crackups, and yet you've said you've managed to avoid them yourself, perhaps by writing about them.

I think so, yes. I've never cracked up myself, but I've been very much involved with people who have been on the edge. So I ask myself if this wasn't a way of holding it all at bay. If you're looking after somebody who's in terrible trouble, you can't afford to crack up.

There's a scene in the book where you meet Henry Kissinger as a young man.

He came to see me. I was always very impressed by that.

It's an interesting scene, because you quarreled with him and disliked him, yet you also respected him a good deal.

I did. Because he came at all. I can't think of any other right-wing American who would have taken the trouble. He actually came to London and asked to see a left-winger. I don't know who else he sought. But everyone was engaged in the election, so they shuttled him off onto me. He saw me as the enemy -- I was this left-wing communist. And it was the most astonishing encounter. I did admire him.

Do you think he listened to you?

No, of course not. He just thought, "This kook."

Have you ever seen him again?

No. But I've followed his progress with interest. I think, even now, that somebody who can talk about small-sized atomic bombs as "kitten bombs," there's a certain lack of sensitivity, wouldn't you say?

The other thing you said you had trouble evoking in this book was how different the publishing scene was then. I assume that means you think it's much worse now for writers.

The current publishing scene is extremely good for the big, popular books. They sell them brilliantly, market them and all that. It is not good for the little books. And really valuable books have been allowed to go out of print. In the old days, the publishers knew that these difficult books, the books that appeal only to a minority, were very productive in the long run. Because they're probably the books that will be read in the next generation. It's heart-breaking how often I have to say when I'm giving talks, "This book is out of print. This book is out of print." It's a roll call of dead books.

You say publishing is worse now. But there is a scene in your new memoir in which you describe how Knopf wanted you to add an explicit rape scene to your first novel, "The Grass is Singing."

Well, it was Blanche Knopf -- the great Blanche Knopf -- who wanted me to put in an explicit rape scene. And I was terribly shocked, because she was a great guru then of publishing, in New York at least. I never met her. I'm not saying the old publishers were perfect. Of course they weren't. They made terrible mistakes. But there was a different atmosphere. People were not so impatient and always working for immediate results.

Do you blame television at all? You write in this book that TV came and suddenly an era ended. You describe TV as this "toad in the corner."

That was oversimplified, because some of the TV's good. It ended a verbal culture, people sitting around talking. You know, you make these pronouncements like, "The situation is bad because of TV," or because of cinema, or because of you name it. But how do we know what the fault is?

You have a lot to say about America in this book. You describe it as this country of extremes, a country that's susceptible to fevers. I was thinking about Diana's death and wondering whether that prompted an American-style fever in the U.K.

Good god, that was astonishing. That was a worldwide fever. How can you explain that? The most intelligent remark I read said that the whole world wanted an excuse for a good cry. And here it was.

How did you personally feel about her death and the reaction to it? Were you surprised, or moved?

I was shocked. There was something about that death. I was down on the shore in Somerset, I turn on the radio, and I hear something about a dead princess. And I was running through all the princesses in my mind, it couldn't be Diana, and my god, it was Diana. And then this death in this tunnel, being pursued by her ... I can't call them her enemies, since she was always courting the press -- the brutality of it. It was like some kind of a Greek myth. With her lover, who was a very on-the-edge, devious character. The whole thing had this flavor, and maybe that's why it hit. I was shocked to hear and so depressed. I was in a house full of people; they were all shocked. But the reaction. Nobody understands it. It's beyond us.

You've already made some minor controversy over here with your new book. You describe being profiled by a New York Times writer, and you write about the "shallow" article that resulted. But your publisher told you the article helped sell thousands of copies to the chain stores.

It wasn't a very good article. The point was that it sold 1,500 copies.

Your point, I think, was that you feel people aren't necessarily reading those copies.

Yes. This is what happens now. People see a review, or whatever, and they say, "Well, I'll buy that book." Whereas in the past, there was the slow building up of reputations, friends recommended books, and you got to know the writer's work. I don't think there were many books bought and unread. Another problem are the lines of encomiums and exclamation marks saying, "This is the greatest book since Shakespeare," etc. In the long run, it's counterproductive. I would very much like to see everything acquiring a quieter tone.

Are things different in the London publishing world?

No, it's just the same. I picked up a book just before I left. It's a nice book, I'm not going to say what. I looked at it, the adjectives on this book, you'd think it was Proust. Not that Proust ever got that when he started. How can any poor reader find his way amongst all this? What happens is publishers send books to us, because of the difficulty of getting books noticed, and we think, "My god, the future of this writer might depend on my saying a nice thing!" And all these phrases get put together, and it sounds as if this is the greatest writer that ever was. Well, it's just terrible.

This new book is also about that era's sexual politics. You write about how the new freedoms backfired somewhat. People's feelings were badly hurt, particularly women's, by the notion that you could have sex and it didn't really matter that much.

People say it all began in the '60s; I think it began in the '50s. The thing was, there were no rules. There were no rules at all. In the past, everybody knew what the rules were. You could break them or keep them. But not to have any rules at all ... There was birth control for the first time in the '60s. This meant a maximum of opportunity and a minimum of information. And what I look back at now is people who were blundering about, not knowing, really, how to behave. And then came the '60s and everything changed completely, into a kind of free-for-all, which I don't necessarily think was a good idea. Things seem to have calmed down again. I heard from my granddaughters, for example, at the University of Cape Town, which they left some time ago, that people had partners. They didn't sleep around, because they were scared. Well, that wasn't true of the '50s or the war, because there was nothing to be scared of. Syphilis had been defeated, and gonorrhea could be cured with a dose, and no one had ever heard of AIDS.

You write that AIDS reinstituted morality, in a way. Do you think we are in some ways better off -- the fact of so many pointless deaths put aside for the moment -- being forced to be more careful?

I think being more careful is a good thing, yes. I don't think that sleeping around, for most people, is a good thing. I do occasionally meet people who obviously, it seems, never have a moment's thought about ... they're perfectly happy with one-night stands. I meet them. And I think, right, well, that was for you, that revolution. I don't think it was for most people.

There's something deeply glamorous for people my age about your generation. Not only that sexual freedom, but the political ferment and all that drinking and smoking.

I smoked like a chimney. Everyone smoked. Everybody. You know, people that didn't smoke, it was quite extraordinary. People were quite apologetic, "I'm sorry, but I don't smoke." And the drinking! We drank! And that's gone completely, because if I ask people around now, less and less alcohol gets consumed all the time. Whereas if I had a party, let's say, in the '50s, enormous amounts were drunk as a matter of course.

What's changed?

Perhaps people are better informed. I think alcohol had glamour, and that came from the bright young things in the '20s. The reaction to World War I was bright young things and jazz and drinking and smoking, and that was to be liberated. And that lingered on. So it was still clever to drink and to smoke, it was bags of sophistication. Well, now it isn't actually, anymore. It's rather tatty, isn't it?

Maybe somewhat. Did you quit smoking because you somehow knew it was bad for you, or just because you wanted to?

I was so hooked, I just couldn't stand myself anymore. I woke up one night, 1 o'clock in the morning, and I had five cigarettes. I was thinking, "My God, suppose I wake up before the shop opens. I've only got five left. What shall I do? I'll run around to the cigarette machine now and I'll get a packet." And I thought, "My God, woman, you're mad!" [Laughs] So I decided to give it up, and it took me two years to give it up, 35 years ago, and I wouldn't dream of having a cigarette because I'd be lost again. Because I thought it was wonderful, and it is. It's the most agreeable of the vices, almost.

I want to ask you about "The Golden Notebook." It's a book that made you, in some respects, a feminist icon. It's often said to be your best book, yet you're critical of it.

It's a bit of an albatross around my neck, because I do think I've written some interesting books apart from that. And partly because I don't like it being seen so narrowly as a feminist book. I don't think it is a narrow feminist book. Everyone likes that book. It keeps popping up all over the place in different countries. When I think the thing is dead, it doesn't lie down, it gets up again.

What did you mean when you said you'd written it coolly but people took it hysterically?

Look, this is possibly nothing to do with "The Golden Notebook." I'm always astounded at the way we automatically look at what divides and separates us. We never look at what people have in common. If you see it, black and white people, both sides look to see the differences, they don't look at what they have together. Men and women, and old and young, and so on. And this is a disease of the mind, the way I see it. Because in actual fact, men and women have much more in common than they are separated.

On the subject of feminism, let me ask a different question. You've written that women seem to be much more easily shocked these days.

Yes, they are. Almost as a political intention, they're shocked. I can't remember ever being shocked if someone exposed himself, or made a pass which I though was inept. I'd just go, "Well, that's life." But now, it's a whole political agenda.

The sudden vogue of sexual harassment, you mean?

Well, I'm not saying this isn't serious, obviously I'm not. That's the difficulty of this discussion, because I don't want to sound unsympathetic to women who are sexually harassed, because I know they are. But I think a great many women complain about sexual harassment when it's nothing of the kind. It's just one of the minor annoyances of life. When a little boy kisses a little girl at school and it becomes a national issue, what can we say about this? It's just such lunacy.

Let me ask you a Barbara Walters-type question. Are you glad you were born when you were? Do you think you lived in a good time, an exciting time?

Well, it couldn't have been more interesting. I wouldn't like to have been a woman in many cultures in the past, or for that matter, the present. I wouldn't like to be a woman in a Muslim society. On the whole, I think I've been very lucky.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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