Thursday, 24 January 2008

Doris Lessing on the writing life

I went to listen to Doris Lessing (in conversation with Hermione Lee) at the Southbank Centre on Tuesday night. The Literary Saloon drew my attention to Ben Hoyle’s article in The Times about Lessing’s thoughts on contemporary authors and their promotional duties. This grand old dame, frail in body but still strong and edgy in spirit, expressed sympathy for the young writers of today, particularly young women. It’s interesting to think about whether the media profiles of authors – readings, signings, literary festivals, talking head appearances on TV and radio and the like – have a detrimental effect on the quality of writing they produce.

I’ve not read much Lessing, and only went along because it was her first public appearance since being awarded the Nobel. But it was a rather marvellous experience!

She began by reading the opening from her new novel, Alfred and Emily (due from HarperCollins in May 2008). It’s about her parents, about how WWI changed them so drastically that she thinks she never met her “real” parents, the people they’d have been but for the war. She described how the first half of the novel gives them the lives she imagines they had while the second half is about what actually happened to them (at least as far as she knows). It opens in 1902, Edwardian England, with the village cricket match at which the 16 year old Alfred meets the 18 year old Emily.
She said it will be ultimately be “quite anti-war”. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Lessing was witty and sharp, quite like her fiction really. She spoke intelligently and movingly about WWI, about how it was the foundational event of the 20th century, twisting and shaping everything that came after it, but yet doesn’t get the time or attention she thinks it deserves. She spoke about Zimbabwe, about the friends she still has there and the daily struggles they face. And if it’s bad for them (who are comparatively well off) it must be brutal for poorer people.

I recently finished Lessing’s The Fifth Child. It’s a slim novel, but still powerful. Harriett and David Lovatt are out of step with the Swinging Sixties, being “conservative, old-fashioned, not to say obsolescent”. Their shared dream is to create the perfect family, to provide a loving home to a brood of children in a rambling Victorian house. As the first four children are born the reality almost surpasses the dream. The children are healthy and charming, the parents are brimming with love for them and each other, the extended families are brought together, with wounds from the past being healed during shared Christmas and Easter holidays in Harriet & David’s house.

The plot turns sinister when Harriet falls pregnant with the fifth child. None of her pregnancies had been easy but this one is tortuous. The baby quickens early, and the movements gradually build into a crescendo of agony for Harriet. She starts to think “this savage thing inside her” is the enemy. When Ben is born at 8 months there are no reserves of maternal love for this monstrous child, so different from the other Lovatts. The cracks have well and truly appeared in the Lovatts’ charmed family life.

This almost reads like a fairy tale, a reworking of the ancient fear of giving birth to a monster. The taboo of the mother who despises her child. But there are shadows lurking in Harriet and David’s life before Ben’s birth, and Ben is not a complete monster (I felt quite tender towards him at times, at his isolation within his family), and it’s this complexity that made this an interesting read. I would say it’s a good book, good enough to seek out more Lessing.


verbivore said...

I really should read more Lessing. I read The Grandmothers two years ago and that was fascinating. She's such a powerful writer. I am terribly jealous you got to go listen to her speak!

Logophile said...

The Grandmothers looks interesting - after reading such a short novel it would be cool to read some short stories. It was unexpectedly enjoyable to listen to her, she's quite an inspiration!

Juliet said...

I imagine you will look back in years to come and be very pleased you seized the opportunity to see and listen to this amazing lady. I haven't read anything like enough Lessing, either, but am inspired to read The Fifth Child now. (I bought it years ago, but decided it really wasn't an ideal book to read while pregnant!)

Gentle Reader said...

I should read more Lessing, too! I read The Golden Notebook as a younger woman, and enjoyed the feminism, and cultural commentary. My sister-in-law just gave me a copy of Martha Quest, which she said was accessible Lessing. I'm looking forward to reading it. How great that you had a chance to see her--she's legendary1

Logophile said...

Juliet, the 5th child is a book I'd insist any pregnant woman avoids!
Gentle Reader, I've read the Golden Notebook too and hope you enjoy Martha Quest!

Stefanie said...

So lucky you got to see her in person! As others have said, I've got to read more Lessing too!