Monday, November 18, 2013

Doris Lessing's Death and Our Own

Doris Lessing has died.  Let me say that differently:  Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing has died.  If you've been reading my blog regularly, you know that I have confessed to never actually finishing her books.

I've tried.  Oh how I have tried.

In the 1980's, I started reading feminist authors in earnest. I subscribed to Ms. magazine. Doris Lessing's name kept coming up. So many of my favorite authors mentioned her work, and in particular, the book The Golden Notebook. I could hardly wait to read it.
I tried to slog through it during the summer of 1985. I was commuting to Southeast D.C., where I worked as a housing counselor for Lutheran Social Services--like President Obama, I was a community outreach organizer, of sorts. I tried to connect poor people to services and grant money. We had money to winterize houses, and we did that. I answered the phones and helped people file paperwork that would keep them from losing their homes. There were hours of downtime where I simply waited for the phone to ring and could read. Plus, I was commuting by bus and subway, which meant I had more time to read. I often carried numerous books with me.
I tried so hard to read The Golden Notebook. I wanted so much to like it. I just didn't. I finally gave up. Occasionally, I returned to Doris Lessing, but I could never finish her books.

I do wonder if I was just too young to appreciate The Golden Notebook.  That 19 year old college student, home for summer, commuting to her summer job, would not understand the problems of feeling fragmented.  The theme of developing an integrated self would appeal more to me now--but the fragmentation that Anna, the protaganist of that novel, was dealing with different challenges than I face now.  I don't face issues with my Communist comrades or with motherhood. 

Other feminist authors, like Marge Piercy and Erica Jong, were easier for my younger self to read and enjoy.  Maybe part of my problem with Lessing is that I expected her to be fairly straightforward in terms of her narrative style--she was not.  I was not prepared for a modernist play with perception and consciousness.  I expected her to be straightforward in terms of her politics and feminism--she was not.  I had problems with a narrator that was so flawed.
Later, in graduate school, I was happy to understand Lessing's place in British literature, but I had other female authors from the 20th century whom I liked better: Margaret Drabble and Iris Murdoch for example. I could write about Doris Lessing for my Comprehensive exams, but I never managed to actually finish any of her books.
I don't understand why I can like James Joyce but not Doris Lessing. Well, I suspect the key is having a good teacher. In graduate school, I had the fabulous Dr. Rice guide us through the works of Joyce. None of my grad school professors had us read Lessing. I suspect they felt the same way about her work that I did.
Still, I'm happy that her writings came when they did, that The Golden Notebook was there to guide the development of other feminist writers who would be so important to me.  I'm happy that she retained her feistiness until the end.  As I said earlier, I'm always happy when a female writer wins the Nobel prize, and I'm glad that Lessing could have that honor.  I suspect it didn't mean as much to her as it did to me, when her selection was announced.   It's sobering to me to realize how many of my favorite authors and musical artists are over the age of 70.  I'm not looking forward to continuing to write these kinds of memorials, as the creative people who have been so important to me leave this world.   It's time for the younger generations (me!?!) to begin/continue/finish our important work.  Like Doris Lessing, we may have to continue our work, even as people on all sides misinterpret or dismiss our work.  Or we may have gotten acclaim in our younger years and have to figure out how to approach our work as our middle years make different demands.  But the passing of Lessing reminds us that we're none of us here for very long.     We don't have time to waste.

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