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.