Doris Lessing wins the Nobel!

Doris Lessing wins the Nobel!

What a surprise — I know she’s been shortlisted forever, but it never occurred to me that they’d actually give it to her — but then again, the Nobel committee seems to like decidedly odd writers — and Lessing is certainly odd.

I can’t overstate how important The Golden Notebook was to me in my twenties when I was trying to figure out how to be a writer, trying to figure out how to build what Anna Wulf describes as a “free” life. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a wife and a mother, but I didn’t want to be bound by those options — I didn’t want those to be the only options. And even at lefty Beloit College where all of us girls had every intention of entering a profession — the jungle drums were still beating — one still felt the pressure to find a boyfriend, and to turn that boyfriend into a husband in due course. One still felt the jungle drums that this was your true task.

And while some abstract part of me wanted a boyfriend and a husband, I was much more interested in figuring out how to become some sort of intellectual, my true obsession was figuring out how to be a writer. I wanted to be an adventurous person, one who left the Midwest and didn’t wind up trapped in some house with a bunch of kids and a husband who was never around and who resorted, as did the women in my family, to drink and despair.

Lessing was the first writer I found who honestly described a woman’s inner struggle to be liked by men, to be agreeable to them, and yet somehow to be true to one’s own self. She wrote the felt experience of womanhood in a way that I wasn’t finding in anyone else at the time — later Woolf was to have much the same impact on me, but I couldn’t read Woolf in my 20s, I found her too drifty, too upper-class, too interior. In Lessing I found someone writing honestly about what it felt like to be female and smart and ambitious. I found someone writing about the problems of finding love when you were female and smart and ambitious. And as a writer, the structural aspects of The Golden Notebook fascinated me in much the same way as the structural aspects of Ulysses did — I wanted to figure out how she used all those different sections, how she made the structural disorientation toward the end reflect Anna’s interior disorientation — I loved it all. I read that book until the covers fell off.

One of the things I’ve always admired in Lessing’s work (and that I miss in the current lot of twee fiction), is the portrait of what it felt like to live in a particular political situation — whether it’s colonial Africa, or the Communist left of the 40s and 50s — it’s what I loved about the Children of Violence series, and about autobiographies (including The Sweetest Dream which she wrote as a novel after abandoning the third volume of the autobiography because too many people were still living). I’m no fan of her science fiction, and some of the dystopian novels are just too dystopian for me, but I love that she wrote them. I love that she wrote what she wanted to write, what she felt compelled to write — I’m always shocked when I hear writers I know talk in a calculated way about their work, always shocked when I hear someone I know saying they wouldn’t write a book a particular way because that’s not what’s being published right now. (Of course, these are writers who both finish and sell more books than I do, so perhaps I should be paying more attention.) I’ve always admired uneven writers who try a lot of different things more than those writers who seem to write the same book over and over again — and no one can accuse Doris Lessing of writing the same book over and over again.

At any rate, I couldn’t be more thrilled with this morning’s news — Lessing isn’t trendy, she’s never been particularly accomodating, she’s actually kind of a pain — all of which I adore about her. Here’s a link to a picture that sums is all up for me — Lessing sitting on her front step, talking to the reporters. No false modesty for her: “I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one. I’m delighted to win them all, the whole lot . . . It’s a royal flush.”

I can’t wait for her Nobel speech — I’m sure, as always, she’ll have something interesting to say to us all.

7 thoughts on “Doris Lessing wins the Nobel!

  1. I just saw the news, too, and came to see which of my favorite bloggers have already posted about it. Congratulations, you’re the first! 🙂

    I’ve had “The Golden Notebook” for years now, possibly as many as 8 or 9, but never read it. I sure would like to, though. I think I’ll be making time for it soon.

  2. I just looked it up — I love being able to track my orders on Amazon! — I bought it in July 2004, three weeks before my daughter was born. No wonder I haven’t read it!

  3. So, I dug out my copy of “Golden” and read the two introductions before bed last night. Several things got my attention — one: how did I get through college without ever hearing about this novel or even hearing the name Doris Lessing? (My degree was in philosophy) two: why did I never hear about this book until I was in my 30’s, nearly 40 years after it was published? three: Holy cow, she’s writing about a lot of things that are on my mind right now.

    I’m really looking forward to reading this book. I’m so glad she won the Nobel, I think it will give her literature a weight that it apparently lacked in the late 1980’s when I was supposedly getting an education.

  4. Really — you never ran into her in college? The women’s studies people were all over her — in fact, I know a number of women our age who can’t stand Lessing because they had her shoved down their throats — the other thing that happened with Lessing was that the science fiction really freaked out the people who thought of her as a “feminist” writer — there are always people who don’t like when a writer changes her spots and a number of feminists took the sci fi as a betrayal …

    Who wrote the intros in your copy? Is it the one where Lessing keeps revisiting the history of the GN and answers to them?

    I hope you like it — it’s a little dated, and I haven’t reread it in years, but it’s a book I really loved. The other one that’s worth a look is The Sweetest Dream — she wrote it instead of the 3rd volume of her autobiography and it’s about the postcolonial history of Rhodesia — there’s a character who could be read as a young Mugabe — it’s really interesting —

  5. I’ll have to dig out my Women in Lit notes to see if Lessing was mentioned. I’m sure she must have been, but she wasn’t one of the women we focused on in that semester. I’m curious now, though, what mention was made of her, so next time I”m in that part of the household archives, I’ll peek around.

    Margaret Atwood has suffered some of the same attitude problems with her two speculative-fiction titles. (In fact, when Michiko Kakutani reviewed “Oryx and Crake” for the NYTimes, she began with the sentence “Margaret Atwood has strayed from us before.” Uck!)

    Both of the intros are by Lessing, the fascinating one is dated early ’70’s, about a decade after the book was originally published — I think this is the one you’re talking about — it mentions her own take on the work and how she was surprised by readers’ focus on other aspects of it. That one fascinated me in part because that was one of my own challenges when I first started sharing my writing with others — people were not seeing the things I intended (admittedly, in large part due to weaknesses in my own writing) and they were seeing things I hadn’t really given much attention. I had to learn to let the work have its own life, that was difficult for me and may actually be one of the things that holds me back still. Then there was a briefer one added in the ’90’s that was interesting as well.

    As for dated, it will be interesting to see how that affects me. I very much like some “dated” writing — certain types of sentences you see rarely any more seem quite natural to me and I enjoy reading that. However, I was just noticing that the Pulitzer Prize winner the year that GN was released was Revolutionary Road, a book I had heard great things about but just couldn’t get myself to read past page 25.

    I’ll dig into GN sometime next week and let you know how it goes!

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