Doris Lessing, who died last weekend at the age of ninety-four, was a literary giant who lived long enough to turn against practically all the strongly held convictions of her youth.
Born of British parents in Persia in 1919, she was taken to southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when she was five. She first came to England in 1949, and the following year saw the publication of her first novel, The Grass is Singing. In 1954 she received the Somerset Maugham Award for her collection of short stories, Five. Her celebrated novels include The Golden Notebook, The Summer Before the Dark and Memoir of a Survivor. In 1985 she won the WH Smith Literary Award and also the Mondello Prize in Italy for her novel The Good Terrorist.
In 1994 Under My Skin, the first volume of her autobiography, was published – followed by the second volume, Walking in the Shade, in 1997. She derided literary prizes but scooped most of them, including the Nobel Prize in 2007. At eighty-eight she was the oldest woman ever to win it, and only the eleventh woman to receive the award.
I first met Doris in 1986 when I interviewed her briefly for my book, Women, published in 1987. I recall going to her house in Hampstead, North London, where I was greeted with open arms. I found her easy to get on with, and thoroughly enjoyed her company.
In 1997 I went to see her again – this time, to interview her at length, to include in a book I subsequently published titled In Conversation with Naim Attallah.
My impression of her was of a woman larger than life, whose background and exploits were not easily definable as she herself was in many ways a tortured soul bereft of any real measure of happiness. Her honesty and humility could not have been more transparent, and her ability to be self-critical was at the very core of her inner strength.
Our interview in 1997 will give the reader the essence of what made this complex and awe-inspiring novelist a literary colossus. Here it is in full.
During your life you have never allowed yourself to settle too long or too comfortably in any particular creed, even though you have never lacked conviction. Would you say, looking back, that you have constantly invented and reinvented yourself?
I don’t agree I am a person of conviction. The only time in my life when I had real conviction was the time when I was a Communist, but that didn’t last very long. I am without fixed opinions generally, because I always find it very difficult to make up my mind about anything. When I was young I was very aggressive and antagonistic and abrasive, but then I was fighting on all fronts against a society which at that time couldn’t see any reason why the tiny white minority shouldn’t hold down an enormous black majority. It could be said that those were strong beliefs which I defended, but for a long time now I’ve been a wishy-washy liberal.
Even though you have been in London for most of your life, do you think you have always had the perspective of an exile, and this has perhaps allowed you to look at the familiar in a different way?
Yes, I have a double view all the time. My parents were so archetypally British, and yet I am absolutely outside this culture. This is very valuable for a writer.
You found the colonialism in Rhodesia suffocating and provincial and terribly unjust – and this has informed several of your novels. Was it purely an adult recognition of the iniquity of white superiority, or were you aware of it as a child and simply gave your childish reaction adult expression?
That’s a very good question. You see, I was a natural rebel so it could be said that in rebelling against my parents and what they stood for it was natural of me to use the inequalities of white supremacy against them. But I don’t think it was really as simple as that. I remember being socked very early at what I was seeing around me, genuinely shocked. But of course if you are standing out against your parents you pick up any stick to hand to beat them with, and it’s true they supported the British Empire as if it were a religion. No one understands this now, it’s gone so completely.
Have you been aware of racist attitudes since you came to London?
Oh yes, a great deal, all the time. It’s very subtle. In the circles I move among the people are probably not even aware that they have them. But I have a very privileged life, I don’t live in the parts of the country where racism is violent.
You are known to be uneasy about the genre of autobiography. Indeed you once said, ‘There is no doubt that fiction makes a better job of the truth.’ Can you explain what you mean by that?
Not easily. It is the simple case that a scene in which perhaps only half of the characters are real and the other half invented can be more truthful than the absolute facts; and I don’t understand it at all. When I was writing my autobiography I was actually comparing it with scenes in A Golden Notebook. The strange thing was that the one was absolutely full of life and yet it was only half the truth, whereas when I was writing the truth it lacked life and vividness in comparison.
Your autobiography was written as a kind of defence against the biographies and profiles written about you. What is it you fear principally?
Inaccuracy. They always get their facts wrong, they just don’t care. But I always meant to write my autobiography at some point, and since I’m now seventy-six I can’t keep putting it off.
Do you believe that what can perhaps be explained and resolved in fiction often remains inexplicable and unresolvable in life, in oneself?
Yes, but all the time you see your life differently. They way I see my life now is completely different from ten or twenty years ago. Maybe by the time I come to die it will all be clear to me, who knows. It’s also a completely different creative process if you’re writing imaginatively. Your whole self goes into it in a way it can’t when you’re writing an autobiography.
Under My Skin was published last year and covers the first thirty years of life. What difference did it make that it was written by a woman in her seventies with all the knowledge and uncertainty which old age brings?
The interesting thing is that if I am spared, as they say, and if God wishes me to be alive in ten years’ time, I’m prepared to bet I would see everything differently. I used to think that if I took an autobiography down off a shelf I would know what the writer thinks about life. Now I know that it is only what he or she think about life at the time of writing, like an interim report.
In your childhood the absence of love from your mother was a bitter deprivation. Do you believe that we ever really get over wounds inflicted in our early years?
No, I don’t think we really do. You can compensate for them and understand them but you never really get over them. In me there’s a certain bleakness of view I will never lose, a kind of wariness, a lack of trust.
How did you know there was a lack of love?
It’s something as simple as how you are held by someone. I remember how my father would hold me on his knee, and the way my mother would handle me, as if I were something she had to manage. And when I met my brother in old age I saw the effect of it all. He was the much loved boy and consequently had an amazing emotional response to everything. And I thought how strange it was that I understood more about him than he did about himself, because I could see in him an immediate physical affection which I’ve had to learn later in life. I would say I’m naturally a very affectionate person, but I had a blight on me when I was young, and I had to lose that.
The legacy of the First World War brutalized a whole generation and cast a shadow over your childhood. Do you think that the First World War was uniquely horrible in this respect, or do all wars exact a similar price?
I think the First World War was the worst. It wounded Europe deeply, and we haven’t got over it. It was such a holocaust, such a murderous war, unnecessarily so, such a contempt for life. I don’t think we’ve recovered from it.
There was a sense of betrayal felt by people like your father – who lost a leg and was shell-shocked – and contempt for the British government. To what extent did this shape your own attitude to Britain and the British?
A great deal. I was brought up breathing contempt for authority, which came directly from my father. It applied not only to the British, because the Germans and French had it too – you’ve only got to read the books of that time. The First World War left a legacy of contempt for authority all over Europe, and it’s a terrible legacy.
You tried very hard not to be like your parents, not to be held together and trapped in the way they were, almost – as you say yourself – as if you were trying to stand outside the human condition. Do you think you have succeeded in standing on the outside?
No, certainly not. Who can? I don’t want to go into why, but I very much regard all that, the thoughts I had then, as the most romantic nonsense.
Do you actually believe this unhappiness in childhood, this struggle and the pain of it all, actually helped the writer in you? If you had a happy carefree childhood do you think things might have turned out differently?
I don’t think it’s unhappiness so much. A child who’s had a very stressed childhood becomes an observer, and it’s very good preparation for being a writer.
You describe your mother as a tragic figure ‘living out her disappointing years with courage and dignity’. Did that insight include forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a very funny word, you know. It seems to me that forgiveness is understanding. Since I understand exactly why she was the way she was, I forgive her. When I was a little girl I was full of pity for her, which isn’t at all the same, but it took me almost until the age of seventy to understand her, to see just how terrible her life was. And that’s forgiveness, I think.
Do you believe that we necessarily repeat the patterns of our parents, or can we simply decide to break the link in the chain?
I think we can break it, yes, but often you find it’s almost as if a script is there and you have to repeat the words.
Do you think the fact that you left your own two small children had anything to do with the feeling that you in turn might inflict similar damage on them?
You have no idea of what life was like, the life of the white minority in Southern Rhodesia. It was a nightmare of stupidity and intolerance and narrow-mindedness. I wouldn’t have survived it, I just couldn’t have lived it. When I left my children I was thinking, at least I’m not going to inflict this terrible legacy on them, a legacy which causes women to turn into disappointed, trapped people. These women have ceased to exist in this culture, thank God – those who have talent and energy but nothing to use it on, so they take it out on their children. I would have done it to mine if I hadn’t left.
But did you ever regret that decision?
No, I didn’t, because I did the right thing. I’m amazed that I had the clear-mindedness to see what I should do, because it was awful of course in one way.
That part of your story is very scantily told. Even adding together your political crusade, your urge to improve the world, your need to get away, to have a different life, they scarcely explain the enormity of what you did. Can it be explained, do you think?
It can be explained, but I don’t know if people can see. I knew I would not survive that life, which is why I left. Don’t forget I had my mother on my back day and night, and I was obsessed with not being like her. I was not the only woman to feel that way; all the women I knew of my age group had mothers who drove them round the bend by all the time trying to live their lives for them. When I left those children it was not the children I was leaving, it was the way of life. Of course I should have done it; if I had not done it I would have been finished.
Did you experience the ravages of guilt?
Of course I did, it’s very clear. What a lot of people miss in the autobiography is several pages of, ‘Oh my God, how could I have done such a dreadful thing!’ Surely it must be taken for granted that I was likely to have found it a painful experience without my spelling it out.
There are other parts of your life which might also have fascinated the reader, which you have glossed over, almost defiantly avoiding explanation or elucidation. Your marriages, for example, are presented as incidental. Is this because they are too private, or now too remote perhaps?
I think I said quite a lot about the first marriage. I walked into a role in that society where there were certain things I had to do, and I did them. I have to say I did them all rather well – I was a good wife while I was a wife. It was a classical and conventional and not very emotional marriage. What more is there to be said about this kind of marriage? The second was also a very common marriage at the time. People married refugees to give them a nationality and a status, and it was a normal thing to do. It was a political act. – Lessing would have been put back in an internment camp if I hadn’t married him.
Was there any room for love?
When I first married I hadn’t really grown up emotionally; I was just a girl with an undeveloped heart – a competent, cheerful, affectionate woman who had never really loved anyone. There was nothing wrong with this – a lot of people got married in just this way. And he was not desperately in love with me. Everyone was getting married because of the war. The second one was completely different, in that we knew we wouldn’t stay married. There was never any point any suggestion of that. It was completely political. From my point of view I was marrying an anti-fascist, an anti-Nazi, a hero from Europe, but as far as my parents were concerned, I was marrying a bloody German in the middle of a war against Germany. It was terrible for them.
When you touch on your marriages, there is no sense of happiness or romance conveyed. Is that because there was no happiness, or is it because the happiness has been erased from your memory?
There was nothing romantic about my first marriage; it was more comradely and friendly.
But was it happy?
Apart from the fact that I hated every minute of my life, yes.
Do you think you were just unsuited to marriage itself?
Well, later on it was a different matter all together. I don’t think I grew up emotionally until my thirties. I think I was suited to marriage then, but by that time it was quite difficult for any man to marry a woman like me.
Were your political affiliations principally a way of dealing with the injustice and the unsatisfactoriness of life, or was it more that they offered an escape?
Neither. What people forget is that everybody became a Communist then. I find this the most astonishing thing, that a whole epoch has disappeared and no one understands. My editor at HarperCollins asked how it was possible for me to become a Communist a few pages after I wrote that I was socially concerned. I do not have to explain to anyone of my generation in the West why I became a Communist. Everybody did. Indeed there was a time when I never met anyone who wasn’t a communist.
But was it a kind of a fashion, or was it because you felt deeply about the injustices in the world?
Of course I felt deeply about the injustices of the world, but the reason why everybody became Communist then was because they saw Communism as a cure for everything.
In your autobiography you write of your Communist period saying, ‘We were young and foolish then…’ But you were so sucked in, so much part of the high-minded idealism … was the pain of disillusionment not completely overwhelming?
No, but it took quite a long time to recover. Don’t forget I wasn’t one of those who were a thousand percent Communist. For them it was terrible when Communism turned out badly; it ruined their lives, they committed suicide, God knows what they didn’t do. But for me when it proved not to be what we thought it was, it was not a major blow.
You have said that you are no longer political. What do you think it would take to sustain belief in a political movement?
I take the view that we kid ourselves when we think we’re in charge of our affairs; we just adapt and trot along like little dogs. It’s different when there is a war or something terrible like that, but most of the time nothing happens in the way it was planned; everyone simply adjusts to events after they happen. I care very much that we make such a mess of things, but it doesn’t matter a damn who I vote for. We always think that somebody is going to get in and change everything; well they can’t, they’re netted, they’re surrounded by events they have to submit to. We’re not at all masters of our destiny; we just make small adjustments here and there as we go along.
I was fascinated by your description of burgeoning sexuality in a young girl, the power of desire and so on, and also by your suggestion that a fourteen-year-old girl could benefit from initiation by an older man. Did you perhaps have this experience yourself?
No, but I wish I had had it. I should have been taken on by a man of about twenty-five, and I personally think it would have been very good for me, and probably for him, but of course our society is not set up for that. What happens is that all this raging sexuality of teenagers goes into ridiculous behaviour. We make a joke of it and say that adolescents are sex crazed; well, they are sex crazed, nearly all of them, but it’s the most terrible suffering and waste of energy. And they do ridiculous things like getting pregnant or getting married too young, all this kind of thing.
You are very much aware of the way women are in the grip of powerful forces, the various natural cycles, as well as the need to have babies, the biological imperative … are you pleased to be free of all that?
I’m very glad I don’t have to menstruate any more, for example, or that I don’t have to think about whether or not I should have another baby. I take the view that women, from the time they have their first period until they are middle-aged, are powerfully in the grip of nature’s desire that they should have babies. I don’t think young women are taught enough about this. The best you can do is to be aware of it, and most women are, of course, but it’s such a powerful thing. Young people are taught they are free, they can have choices, do what they like, and they’re in control; well, they’re not, particularly not if they are women.
Do you think that all can be explained in terms of biological imperative?
Not quite all. My latest novel looks for an explanation for falling in love when you’re old, when it can have no possible biological use. I addressed the question, but I just don’t know the answer. When you’re young you think that you fall in love because it’s time you got married or had another baby, but I’m wondering if we don’t fall in love because of a terrible lack in ourselves, a yearning for something else completely. And the yearning for another human being isn’t necessarily to do with that person; it could also be for another dimension in life.
You have made some very scathing remarks about feminism … is it doubly irritating that feminists often claim you as one of their own?
I don’t mind that so much. It’s more that they could have achieved so much and they haven’t. That great burst of energy in the 1960s was so extraordinary, but most of it was completely wasted, frittered away, mostly in slanging each other. I find it extremely painful.
You have been quite preoccupied with the problem of evil which found expression in two of your most recent novels, The Fifth Child and The Good Terrorist. Do you believe that evil is innate in human nature?
Other people saw The Fifth Child as evil, I didn’t. This creature was a genetic throwback and I was interested in him as someone who would be perfectly valid in the wrong context. About The Good Terrorist, I thought I was simply describing a certain kind of political animal of whom there are far too many, but it wasn’t evil, it was just a terrible waste of everything. I don’t like the word evil.
Your multiplicity of styles and genres has perplexed, sometimes enraged, your faithful readership. Is that something that you understand? For example, someone who is hooked on The Golden Notebook is going to be somewhat fazed by five volumes of space fiction…
I’m glad to say that some of my readers like both. There are of course people who like only the science fiction, and some who only like realism, but both seem to me to be very narrow minded actually.
Where do you stand now on the question of religion? Do you subscribe to any particular faith?
I don’t like the organized religions much. I try to study Sufism, but of course the Sufis are not bound to any particular religion.
Do you believe in God?
That’s a very interesting question … what god? The word god is loaded. I was listening to someone on the radio this morning saying that God is a very wicked person. Well, I think we could helpfully leave this word out for a while because it is so debased.
Reading your autobiography there are many important events, such as marriage, which are attributed to the Fates or Mother Nature or to some uncontrollable power. This is difficult to reconcile with the young girl who chanted, ‘I will not, I will not’, against her parents … the girl who left school, left home, went to Salisbury to become a secretary and so on. How are they reconciled in your own mind?
That seems to me to be the great irony of the book. The young girl was always saying, ‘I will not do this, I will not do that,’ when in actual fact she was continually doing things that she didn’t want to do. When I was a girl I said to myself I would not get married until I was much older. In fact I married when I was not quite nineteen. Why? Because war was coming, and everyone was getting married. I was a little fish in a pond with a wave.
Much of your writing has been to do with different perspectives on insanity and mental breakdown. Is writing itself, the creative process, a form of madness.
It can trip over into madness, but mostly I don’t think it’s any more mad than anything else we do. I take the view that we are a pretty mad race, at least not very sane. Writing is a kind of way we have evolved to examine ourselves. I always say we never pay enough respect to literature for what it is, which is an extraordinary way of describing our lives. Without it we would know so much less about ourselves.
Many writers consider their art to be a way of dealing with the mad bad world, a way of imposing order on the chaos of living … does the same go for you, and have you been successful in your own terms?
I agree it is a way of trying to impose order, but whether I’ve been successful is another question. I’m always aware of how little I’ve done of what I wanted to do. But all writers are like that. They always say, oh my God, I could have done so much better. I am no different.