Quite the review.
I have to confess, I picked up a few of her books in used book shops, but have yet to crack one. [quote=“Hitchens: The Nobel Committee gets it right”]Almost intoxicating to see the Nobel committee do something honorable and creditable for a change … Harold Bloom might conceivably be right (actually, if it matters, I do think he is right) to say that Lessing hasn’t written much of importance for the last 15 or so years. But that’s not to say that she shouldn’t have received the Nobel laurels 20 years ago, if not sooner. (It was Hemingway who first acidly pointed out that authors tend to get the big prize either too early or too late. In his own case, he compared it with swimming ashore under his own steam and then being hit over the head with a life belt.)
To review the depth and extent of Lessing’s work is to appreciate that some writers really do live for language and are willing to take risks for it. It’s also to understand that there is some relationship between the hunger for truth and the search for the right words. This struggle may be ultimately indefinable and even undecidable, but one damn well knows it when one sees it.
I can remember with crystal precision when I first read her early fiction. It was in white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), more than three decades ago. Two of her stories—The Grass Is Singing and This Was The Old Chief’s Country—combined the sad indistinctness of a melancholy memoir with the very exact realization that a huge injustice had been done to the “native” inhabitants of the land to which she had been transplanted. […] and if you ever want to read how it actually felt, and I mean truly felt, to believe in a Communist future with all your heart, her novels from that period will make it piercingly real for you.
Later on, and in a way that is now so familiar that we take it for granted, she gave up this animating faith. But not without writing about it in such a way as to make you catch your breath. There is a short fiction called “The Day Stalin Died” that would deserve reprinting in any anthology of the prose of the 20th century. I have only twice had the experience of reading a story that was so good, and that seemed so much to know what I might be thinking myself, that I was almost afraid to read on. The first time was with Katherine Mansfield, and the second was when holding Lessing’s tale “The Temptation of Jack Orkney” (which is incidentally also about a crisis of faith). Please make a resolution to acquire the volumes in which these occur. It will help you to determine the gold standard in modern writing. […]
The Nobel committee, saturated as usual in its obligation to be worthy, dutifully cites the “epic” element in Lessing’s pioneering feminism. Well, there is no need to disagree here. But in stressing the buried desires and ambitions of the female, and in forcing her readers to confront what in a sense they already “knew,” she rather tended to insist that what a real woman wanted was a real man. The making of this elemental point lost her almost as many admirers as it gained. But, once again, she simply could not employ her literary and emotional capacities for mere propaganda purposes.
I was touched and interested to see Doris Lessing photographed last week, outside the same row house in the rather rough and plebeian district of North London where she has lived for so many decades. Having been an avenging angel of sexuality in her youth, she doesn’t mind in the least looking a bit like a bag lady or a cat collector as she approaches her 90th year. (Actually, she once did produce rather a good book about felines.) There was a serenity to the scene: a person who has just happened to get the Nobel Prize but who really doesn’t need that sort of confirmation.[/quote]