Doris Lessing, 1919-2013: Brave Woman, Brave Writing

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The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing, one of the most important English-language writers of the late 20th century, has died aged 94, her publisher said on Sunday.

Lessing explored topics ranging from colonial Africa to dystopian Britain, from the mystery of being female to the unknown worlds of science fiction.

She won the Nobel Literature prize in 2007. The Swedish Academy praised Lessing for her "skepticism, fire and visionary power."

The following is an interview Lessing gave to Haaretz's Shiri Lev-Ari in 2004.  

Ben Lovatt was born 16 years ago to a serene and harmonious bourgeois family in Doris Lessing's book "The Fifth Child" (which was published by Am Oved in a Hebrew translation in 1994). More than a decade later, Lessing decided to go back and see what happened to Ben, who was the fifth child in the family but never behaved like the rest of his siblings. He was violent, heavy, unrestrained, mentally retarded and bore no resemblance to anyone else in the world. The sequel, "Ben, In the World," was published in 2000 and has now come out in a Hebrew translation by Dorit Landes (Am Oved).

"People asked me what happened to Ben and I became curious myself," says Lessing in a telephone interview from her home in London. "I wondered where he could find a place where he would be accepted despite his uniqueness."

In the sequel, the character is already 18 years old, but looks 35, and this is how he behaves: He has strength and violence and barely restrained urges, and he tries with all his might to navigate a life on the edges of society. Lessing: "I thought criminals would accept him and exploit him, or that he would be accepted by especially poor people, or that he would find himself in scientists' laboratories. So I began to write the book to solve this question. He spent a certain amount of time in the world of cinema, which was tolerant toward him but exploited him because Ben has always been exploited. In this book he becomes aware of the fact that he is exceptional, and of his loneliness, because in `The Fifth Child' he did not know this."
It seems you are not very optimistic about the way society deals with its exceptional people.

Lessing: "I really don't think we can tolerate people who are too different from us. We are a very organized society, we expect conformity, and people who do not conform are punished one way or the other, or are cast out or commit suicide or enter an insane asylum. We consider ourselves tolerant but we're not. We live in a society that is orderly in a really extreme way. Everything has to be in its place and everything depends on our cooperation so that we will be able to function."

No utopias

Lessing, who is 85, who began her literary career at the beginning of the 1950s, is a daring writer and a daring woman. To date she has published about 50 books in Britain, among them novels, collections of short stories, memoirs, poetry, plays and operas, essays and a series of science fiction books. Even at her age, she has not stopped writing and publishing books.

"I'm simply used to it," she says. "My time is limited, you know."

"The Fifth Child" aroused a great deal of interest in its day. Critics saw Ben's story as a metaphor, and each had their own interpretation of that metaphor. There were those who thought it was a book about dilemmas of parents, especially mothers, about raising children; there were those who saw it as a conflict between the moral imperative - that is, to raise the son, the weak link in society, within the family unit and come to terms with the destruction he wreaks all around him - and the concern for personal needs at the expense of the weak, and there were those who saw Ben as a metaphor for the evil inherent a priori in every individual that can burst out at any time, despite the restraint of urges that is so encouraged by human society.
Lessing in fact sees herself as an optimistic person. "I think that the human race will survive because we are good survivors," she says. "We have survived everything, from the Ice Age through plagues and wars. We are flexible and adaptable and intelligent and courageous, and we are good at coping with disasters. So you could call me an optimist. We live right in the midst of disasters. What would you call a world where so many children die during the first year of their lives?

Despite her optimism, Lessing no longer believes in utopias. She was disappointed by the promises of the feminist movement, by the promises of communism and also by the dream of the end of apartheid and the start of Black rule in Africa, after she saw that corruption is also rife in Black governments.

Is there any ideology in the world that speaks to you today?

"When we were young, every kind of utopia spoke to us, and especially communism. People of my generation look very coldly at utopias because we know what happens to them in the end: they very quickly turn treacherous and become brutal. I prefer programs for amendment and change that have limited adjectives," not in the style of `we are in danger now and we have a plan for equality, justice, fairness, egalitarian wages and free sex.' This is the kind of thing that certain political parties were declaring back then. But if there are parties or movements that say `We are going to amend the law on this matter in this way' - this usually also happens."

Too much shouting

Doris Lessing was born in 1919 in Persia (now Iran) to British parents, and when she was 5 years old her parents moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She grew up on a farm, left highschool when she was 14 and went to work in the capital, Salisbury, as a nurse and telephone operator. At the age of 19 she married Frank Wisdom, with whom she had two children, Jean and John (her son died some years ago of a heart attack). In 1943 she decided to leave her husband and her two children (in interviews with her she has said that this was the best thing and the worst thing she had ever done in her life, and she is at peace with it), and married Gottfried Lessing, a German refugee. The two had a son, Peter.

In 1949, she separated from her second husband and moved with her young son to London, where she became politically active as a feminist and a Communist. Her first novel, "The Grass is Singing," was published in 1950. Her first books deal with her life in Rhodesia, Western colonialism and the clash between cultures. Her most famous book, "The Golden Notebook," which came out in 1962, is considered a cornerstone of feminist thinking. The book tells about Anna Wulf, who writes in four different notebooks, each of a different color, in different voices of liberated women until she unites them and writes in a single golden notebook. At the time the book was perceived as a liberated and daring feminine text, both with respect to the contents and with respect to the style.

However, Lessing does not identify herself with the feminist movement - neither then or now. In fact, she has harsh criticism of it. Women's liberation, she said once in an interview, was achieved by science - the invention of the pill and the dishwasher - and not by the feminist movement. Three years ago she caused a public ruckus at the Edinburgh Book Fair when she said that men are the silent victims of the war between the sexes.

Do you think the feminist movement has not achieved anything?

"I think the feminist movement could have been far more effective. `The Golden Notebook' and my attitude towards the feminist movement of the 1960 have no connection to each other. The reason I was disappointed by this movement is that there was too much talk there and not enough action. The sexual revolution took place then, and that's fine, but feminism was not able to bring about real change, that is, bring about equal pay and equal rights.

"When I was young, they told us, `Don't play at being men, go out and achieve equal opportunity for yourselves, equal pay for equal work and a good daycare center. And when you've achieved all that you'll have the same status as men.' This sounds to me the most reasonable thing on the subject. In the 1960s, there was so much noise and shouting, and so few achievements."

Not political

A few years ago Lessing published a satirical novel, "The Good Terrorist," about a young woman from Britain who lives in a commune and plans to change the world, even through terror. But she has never considered herself a political writer. "There is a big difference between a novel that depicts politics, like I've written in the past, and a novel that encourages a specific kind of political activity, and I don't think I've written anything like that. People always talk about me as a political writer but I don't think that I am one."

Has your perception of terror changed since September 11?

"People talk about September 11 as the biggest terror event, but people forget that we live in Britain, where the IRA (Irish Republican Army) was active for years. People forget that the IRA almost killed our prime minister in 1984 and it was just luck that it didn't happen. This kind of horror is not new in Britain, it is new in America. Their sky fell down on September 11, but the rest of the world is already used to these things. So chronicling events in a world that began on September 11 seems to me to be meaningless.

"Today it seems that the species of revolutionary terrorists has somewhat disappeared, but in certain places in Europe and in the United States they are still common - young people who live together in one house, wear a certain kind of clothing, talk in a language of their own and see themselves as revolutionaries. This is their way of giving themselves an identity."

Doris Lessing.Credit: AP