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An Interview with Doris Lessing

This interview by with Doris Lessing, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 10, 2007, appeared in issue 17 of The Reader, Spring 2005. You can buy back issues and subscriptions to The Reader here.

An Interview with Doris Lessing

by Tom Sperlinger

I met Doris Lessing at her home in north London. Her agent had not replied to my first polite request for an interview, so I had written to Lessing herself about two of her books that had changed the way I thought: The Fifth Child and Under My Skin. She was wearing a blue silk shirt, with a collar that she unclasped. Her white hair framed a face that occasionally opened in laughter but which was for the most part watchful and contained. She is good at making her interviewer talk. Her answers often began ‘Well’ or ‘You see’ or, in a more direct turn about from the question, ‘No’. Her presence, in person as in her books, is formidable.

In Under My Skin, the first volume of her autobiography, Lessing wrote, ‘I am trying to write this book honestly. But were I to write it aged eighty-five, how different would it be?’ I began by asking her whether, ten years on, her perspective had changed. Would it be a different book now she is eighty-five?

Well, certainly you do get different emphases as you get older. The other thing that happens you see, is that you remember things that you’d forgotten, so perspectives change a lot. The tone would be bound to be different because you get further and further away from events. This is the great gift of being old, you’re very detached, all that sturm und drang or whatever it is disappears.

She has tried often in her fiction to capture the atmosphere of an earlier time. She noted how hard it is ‘to convey the feeling of a time, later when it’s gone because it’s always improbable. It always is. Like the Cold War. It’s impossible now, it sounds so lunatic’. She talked about the Spanish Civil War, and the socialist anger there had been at the policies of the British and French governments. She overheard herself: ‘You see my voice is going back to the anger.’

The family left Persia (now Iran) when she was five and Lessing spent most of her childhood in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In her autobiography she questioned the selective nature of memory asking how one can know whether what we remember is more important than what we forget. As we talked about this she noted that her younger brother remembered very little of their shared experiences:

How about my brother? We met after a gap of thirty years, because of politics. All this time, because we had this extraordinary childhood on the farm in Africa, I was thinking, ‘Well, at least we’ve got that in common’. He remembered nothing before the age of eleven. I don’t know why he switched off. He’d chosen to forget some pretty remarkable things. Another strange thing is that the house we were brought up in had in it a Persian rug [pointing to a rug on the floor], much better quality than these, a hanging like that [pointing to one on the wall behind me], which I picked up on a street market, brass like that [pointing to a lamp] and a table exactly like that. And I wasn’t aware of doing it, that I was recreating. So we really are so patterned by things we’ve forgotten. Which is quite frightening. We’re not as free as we think we are, let me tell you.

She asked me where I considered my home to be. I said that I had grown up in London but I was not sure I thought of it as home.

Join the club! I’m perfectly happy in Britain, but on the other hand I think I’m not at home anywhere except in a landscape that’s disappeared. But that’s the condition of so many people. This landscape that I can recreate in a minute in my mind, is not there. It’s gone… I’ve got a very interesting thing recently, a book from 1925, the memoirs of a British official who had been working in Persia. It sounds to me actually as if he was kind of a spy. He was travelling around in Persia. He talked about the part of the country I was born in, Kermanshah, which had been fought over by three different countries. It was full of refugees from everywhere, the 1918 flu had just got through and they’d just had typhus – the whole town that I was born in. My parents never conveyed this to me: it must have been in an absolute state of shock.

I asked her where the book had come from. She said that her daughter had found it in a bookshop in Africa.

Our lives are shaped, Lessing suggests, by patterns that we do not remember, or cannot remember. In Under My Skin, she talks about an idea for a novel called Alternative Lives. I asked her about this book, which she has not (yet) written:

I often think how my life would have been different if I’d done other things; because the thing that shaped my life is that I had a child. So that means that you’re not very mobile. And it had good or bad sides to it. The bad side was that I didn’t live in Paris or New York, which I would have liked to have done for a bit. The good thing was that because a child was such a discipline I did not get part of this very attractive life in the clubs in Soho. Which I wouldn’t have survived, believe me. Because it was enormously exciting. You musn’t judge it by the Groucho or something like that. It was full of flamboyant characters, all of them alcoholics, all of them very witty.

She says that as an alternative life she would have liked to be an old fashioned farmer. Or an explorer:

I sublimate all that, I know quite a few people who go exploring. I have a friend who about three years ago was in the Gobi desert, which has an enormously magnetic appeal. I’m sure there are cities buried over there which they haven’t excavated yet. They found creatures that are half birds and half lizards – the missing link in that chain. She was with a mix of Chinese and American anthropologists, on camels. The hardship was intense. You think of yourself surviving on a cup of noodles a day. But it’s enormously appealing.

She asked me what I wanted to do and we talked about teaching. I told her about teaching Othello in a class in Liverpool, with adults who had been out of education for a long time. I said that I knew we were getting somewhere when one of my students asked: Why does Iago behave like this? Is he just evil, or have I missed something?

Menace for the sake of it. Very few people can believe in that… I had the most wonderful experience a long time ago, back when kids used to leave school at fifteen and there was a great pressure at that time to stop. A group of teachers had brought kids whose last year it was, terribly nice kids who were having a last fling at going to the theatre. They’d never been to the theatre before. It was the most wonderful thing, hearing them talk about it. It was like a wonderland that they didn’t know existed.

She is interested in unused potential. I think a lot of people have unsatisfactory lives. I think the worst thing in the world is the amount of unused talent. People have all these talents they don’t use or don’t even suspect they have. I was listening to a radio programme today about people going to prison, and the prisoners have got talents that they never suspected they had. I think this is true of so many people.

On the table behind me was a large pile of white pages, the manuscript of Lessing’s next book. It is a sequel to Mara and Dann, a novel about life in a (near) future Ice Age:

That is going to the publisher next week. I’m just going through for the last time to catch any mistakes I’ve made. Then it will go to the publisher and it’s a very strange thing – it disappears for months and then it reappears, pops up like a rabbit and has a life and a cover. The book took me by surprise because normally I have a rough idea where it’s going. A major character emerged which I didn’t really expect – and that’s very surprising and quite disconcerting. Then I thought ‘something else has got to happen to balance this’. I dreamt something that became very important. That this chap Dann is wandering through marshes and sees these white masses in the water, which are drowned snow dogs. He rescues one – it’s a pup, it’s not quite dead – who becomes a major character. So I dreamt it. That’s always more valuable. I don’t know why, it just is.

In one of the stories from The Grandmothers, ‘The Reason For It’, the narrator finds an explanation for the behaviour of a childhood friend – the truth of the situation – in a dream:

That happens to me. I often get dreams that tell me things, sometimes unwelcome things. I write them down. Sometimes dreams are as good as the beginning of a story. For example, a couple of nights ago I woke up with a cave, a good old cave, and one single woman with a baby. So we’re back in time. Outside the cave is a red wolf, and he was waiting for the woman to take her eye off that baby. And I thought ‘My God, that must have happened.’ You can imagine situations where women got separated from their tribe or the rest of them got killed and there is a girl with a baby, with nothing. It was not a nightmare but quite frightening. The dream progressed, the baby disappeared and there was this red wolf waiting for the girl to take her attention off… So this could be the beginning of a short novel or a story. This red wolf. We’ve got red foxes out there, that’s probably where it came from.

‘The Reason For It’ explores a culture based on oral tradition. Often in her work Lessing offers a protest against the limits normally set on the novel, or the limits we place on ourselves as readers.

I do a lot of reading in a desultory way, and I read somewhere that we take it for granted that a culture and civilization has to be based on literacy. There were civilizations that didn’t have writing, except for a small class of priests or something. So I thought, ‘let’s imagine a culture where stories are the means of educating kids’.

Oral storytelling has been a consistent influence on her work. She is alert to anecdotes and to what people reveal about themselves in the stories they tell. The title story in The Grandmothers, which follows two women who fall in love with each other’s teenage sons, is an example:

That is a true story. I wouldn’t be able to think that one up. It was told to me by a young man who was a friend of the two young men in the story and he was very jealous of them. He came to tell me this through a drunken weekend – he was drunk, angry and sending himself up all at the same time. He said it was unfair this thing had happened to these friends and hadn’t happened to him. The other thing that was interesting was that he was furious with the women for ending it. How could they have done such a thing? How could they have been so cruel? Then I started to think, supposing the story had been told to me not by this young man but by one of the husbands, or a furious neighbour. It would have been a totally different story. But he glamorised it; to him it was ten years of perfect bliss. Which I didn’t believe. What happened in life was they broke it up. The young men were furious. They did get married. The grandmothers were good grandmothers and everything was fine. This was how it was reported. But I find it very hard to believe that it could have been quite so simple.

She says that many readers have asked her what would happen next in the story. ‘Well, I have joked that the old women say “To hell with you lot. We’re going round the world on a cruise.” But then there wouldn’t be that nice hard end. But you see I can imagine writing that parallel, writing it by someone who observed it and was very angry and very shocked, and it would turn into a really unpleasant story then.’

In another story from The Grandmothers, a black girl, Victoria has a baby with the son of a white middle class couple. Looking back, Victoria realises she had not had the right questions to help herself, but that having lived through the events she has grown and changed because of them. ‘Victoria’s a very clever girl, isn’t she? Not everybody has got that kind of capacity to reflect.’ Lessing feels an affinity for those with unhappy childhoods, those distrustful of or violently opposed to authority; or simply left in confusion by it:

I met a young man at lunch the other day and he was joking about his parents. He said, ‘My trouble is that I am Safie and my mother is Edina [from Absolutely Fabulous]. It’s very, very nice in theory but in practice it’s virtually intolerable. You see the trouble is,’ he said, ‘There are no rules.’ Now that is very interesting.

She finds the pure storytelling of The Grandmothers hard to compare with earlier work: ‘I enjoy writing stories so much, that’s what I really enjoy. Gone are the days when I enjoyed writing things like The Golden Notebook, full of interlocking thoughts. Not like writing stories.’ Yet The Golden Notebook, first published in 1962, remains her most famous novel: ‘Of all the books I’ve written, it’s been the one that’s had a longer life than any other.’ Writing it was a way of becoming detached from the political lives it describes; writing it, she says ‘changed the way I thought completely’. Now she views it with a kind of puzzlement:

It’s so distant in time and atmosphere, I’m just amazed at it. It has so much in it of that time and I was so involved in everything. All kinds of ideas that have since bloomed or gone were there in embryo. But it has a strange life, that book – it keeps coming to life again.

She thinks its value is largely now as a ‘historical document’. I remembered reading that Thomas Hardy had said that of all his novels, he enjoyed reading The Woodlanders most as a story. I asked her which of her books she now enjoys reading. She picked The Memoirs of a Survivor, a novel that grew out of a ‘very hubristic’ ambition to write an autobiography in dreams (‘As a story I think it works’) and Briefing for a Descent into Hell, the story of a man who ends up in a mental hospital, remembering nothing about who he is, but retaining all of his education. Again, that had a real-life origin:

This man who remembered everything he’d read, classical education, all that was there. Isn’t that extraordinary? One day they track him down and bring his wife in to see him.
They’d been married for many years and had grown up children. This scene is described where he says, ‘Oh what a delightful woman. I couldn’t imagine being married to anyone more delightful than you.’ And she says, ‘Stop flirting with me. We’ve been married for thirty years.’ He couldn’t remember her, he genuinely couldn’t.

As for The Fifth Child, she said that she hated writing it. ‘God, it was awful. I was glad when I was finished.’ At one point Ben, a kind of changeling or genetic throwback, who disrupts his family’s comfortable life, is taken away to an institution:

That place I described there, I actually saw it in Germany. One of my nightmare experiences. It was near Munich, I was taken to this place. There was this ward full of these creatures. That’s not something you’re likely to forget. Then of course when you think of it, there must be these places because we don’t put inadequate people to death. So where are they? If they’re not in the families, then they’re probably in institutions where they’re expected to die. It must be true.

She added: ‘Everyone said Ben was evil, which I never saw. I just thought of him as a creature in the wrong place.’

One of the enduring consequences of The Golden Notebook is that Lessing was drawn towards Sufism and was influenced by the Sufi thinker, Idries Shah. I asked her why she had chosen not to write about this aspect of her life – or only to hint at it – in the second volume of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade; even though she notes there that she considered it to be ‘her real life’.

It’s very hard to write about that in a way that doesn’t sensationalise it or cheapen it. It’s a mistake for somebody to say ‘try this or that book’, because the mere fact that you’re attracted to this title or that title is important. I personally found The Sufis [by Shah] a revelation, that was the first book I read. It came out in the early sixties. I was absolutely astonished by it and I’m still astonished. But it’s not necessarily a book that will astonish you, if you see what I mean. It might be another book that you find useful. The whole process has been finding something new all the time, and that upsets a previous idea you had. All the time you have to change. The books that you read twenty years ago are completely different now because you have changed.

It certainly has been the most astonishing thing in my life. So it’s quite interesting when I write my diary and I leave something out which happens to be absolutely essential. And I think, I can’t write that, because I know how it’s going to look. It will look sensational. I don’t want to mislead people and you have to be very careful not to be taken as something special when you’re not. People are so hungry for this kind of thing, they’ll invent sensational truths where in fact the truth is quite humdrum if you live it. It’s very difficult to talk about, because the same word can mean completely different things at different stages. Shah once said, there used to be a man down in Oxford Street with a placard saying ‘God is Love’. Well that was the highest message than anyone could give anyone: but it could be a few words scrawled on a placard or it can be a whole series of different spiritual stages and the same words describe each stage. Am I making myself clear? Because some of the stories that have meant so much to me, have meant completely different things at different stages – because you change. I know if this is something for you, you will find it.

She has written about this kind of spiritual growth in The Sirian Experiments, the third in the Canopus in Argos series of ‘space fiction’ novels. Reading it as I was writing up this interview, I found something that echoed our conversation: ‘All this while our eyes were engaged, and my mind felt again as if it tried to enlarge, yet could not.’ Shah, Lessing notes, said that we should not expect Sufis to teach in an expected manner. Perhaps we learn best from teachers who make us aware of the limits in our thinking and at the same time open subjects up so that we have the words for different questions. On meeting Lessing, as on reading her work, one has a strong feeling of recognition and at the same time a sense of being unsettled. She demands that even our most familiar assumptions be questioned.

After the interview, I was aware of things I had not been able to ask. I turned round on the stairs as I was leaving, and held out my hand involuntarily, perhaps wanting to shake hers. I found I was still holding an empty pint glass I had been drinking Coke from. ‘Yes,’ she said practically, looking at the glass. ‘Well, put it in the kitchen.’

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