Transcript from an interview with Doris Lessing on 14 April 2008. The interviewer is Professor John Mullan.
Hello, I’m John Mullan, I’m Professor of English at University College London and I’m here to talk to Doris Lessing, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2007. And I wondered Doris, if you can face it, if we could begin by going all the way back to your first published novel, The Grass is Singing, because I think it’s one that quite a lot of your admirers still find quite a powerful read.
Doris Lessing: Some of them think it’s the best thing I ever wrote, which is really annoying.
Can you remember what impelled you to write it?
Doris Lessing: Yes, of course. Yes, it’s because I’d been saying that I’m a writer and all this and I had short stories. But in fact, I hadn’t written a novel and there was in fact that moment – I was working in a lawyer’s office. I said: Enough now, I’m going to write this novel. And I went in to see my boss, Mr Hill, and I said: Mr Hill, I’m going to leave you and I’m going to write a novel, at which of course he fell about laughing because of how I left him. And I wrote a novel but while this sounds quite … we now embark on 10 years of difficulty.
So it was all based on a little newspaper cutting which I kept because it said so much about what I had been brought up in. See, what the whites couldn’t stand, ever, was somebody who didn’t think they were wonderful, who didn’t fit in. And I’d seen that so often. I hadn’t almost really thought about it. And among the things that went into that book was a woman on the next farm, a new one, who had all the farmers scandalised, a farmer’s wife, because she let her cook boy button her dress up to the back and brush her hair. Now as a girl, I couldn’t see. I mean I knew it was absolutely beyond the pale. So you see when I have to try and explain why this cook murdered his mistress, I have to find something pretty difficult.
And the newspaper cutting that you mentioned, what did that say?
Doris Lessing: It said something like, I have it somewhere … it’s so and so’s cook of so and so murdered so and so. And there’s no motive for the crime.
And so something quite similar to the sort of, the little bit which actually starts the novel?
Doris Lessing: Yes, that kind of thing, probably the same thing. But you have to ask why because, why did he murder her? So when I thought of the sheer unkindness and lack of ordinary human feeling at a lot of the … particularly the women used to the boys, you understood it. I mean it was easy to understand. So we have my black cook, who’d actually had some human feelings for Mary Turner. And then suddenly treated like a dog and thrown out of any kind of possibility of affection. So that was it. All I had to do was to remember the farmer’s wife and the voices when they said … she actually lets the cook boy button up her dress … You have, as a child, you have to really think hard about this. It doesn’t, it’s perfectly evident to them of course what it was all about, but not to a girl.
So, OK, years and years later I wrote it. And that book was centred in the middle of the war, so all the U-boats that went to England twice and was rejected and they came back for a third time. And I looked at it and I thought: My god, this book is two thirds too long. It was perfectly, you know, I could suddenly see it. So I cut out the third that nobody needed and it turned into The Grass is Singing, just like that. And now people say what a beautiful structure it has. They only knew how arbitrary that was. So then of course a friend sold it to a publisher, /—/ wouldn’t publish it because it was too abrasive. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told that. Like The Golden Notebook, too abrasive. So then he didn’t publish it and it sat there in Johannesburg.
And years passed and I came to England and I sent short stories to Curtis Brown, the publisher and Juliette O’Hare wrote and said: Have I got a novel? And I wrote and said: Yes, but it was bought for by Johannesburg. She asked to see the … whatever there was, it wasn’t very much, probably half a page. And she said she’d never seen anything so disgraceful in all her life. And she sent a telegram, remember telegram, to him and said: Release this writer at once or I shall shame you before your entire … Not that he would have cared, he was a crook. So she got the book and sold it over the weekend to Michael Joseph. And then, you see, it did very well before publication, but I was such an innocent, you’d never believe it. They would ring up and say: We are republishing before publication and I’d say: Oh yes. I thought everybody had this. So then he came out and it got, no, it got good reviews. We started having the then progress of a novel you get good reviews, and then … it all took five or six books. Now of course it all happens in one go, doesn’t it?
Doris Lessing: So …
I mean it seems like … I was re-reading it before coming to see you and it does feel like not just the voices of those women, but it does feel as if it’s got real shards of your own very particular memories in it. I mean the descriptions, the sort of the scenery, I suppose you would call in a banal way. It feels like a book which I remember when I first read it, absolutely caught a particular world that …
Doris Lessing: Now gone.
Doris Lessing: The world as a white farmer, it’s all gone.
And I’m interested if you were conscious of this at the time. The heroine, the protagonist, she’s hardly heroic in it. The interesting thing about it seems to be that she is where a lot of our interest lies, but she’s also in some ways quite obnoxious I suppose, or she behaves badly. And you have a strange mixture of sympathy and disgust.
Doris Lessing: You see, she was modelled on someone I knew very well – a town girl. Hard to imagine in Africa – a town girl who hated to be out of the street. She was a woman I used to watch her putting her skirt up, afraid of an ant going across her leg or something like this. And I thought, I remember thinking, supposing she landed as a wife, and one of these farmers wives, she’d go crazy – I was thinking something like that. So I made her do this. She married and of course she did go crazy because she couldn’t stand the bush, the felt, she couldn’t bear it. And she’s not the only one I’ve known who couldn’t bear it either. They go out as if they’re still in a street somewhere and live as if they are still on a street.
And somebody told me the other day that they could quote some people from Australia, women of the same kind. So you have to ask why on earth do they go and marry? Well, look, she wants to get married. This is a society where people have to get married. And even now they should get married. But then, if you weren’t married by the time you were 20, there was something very wrong with you. So she wasn’t married. She was everybody’s best friend. I remember the original. She was everybody’s pal. And none of this is a good prognosis for marriage.
The books that followed that, did that … did the success of The Grass is Singing sort of make you think: Right, I can now be a writer. This is going to be my career, I can actually survive doing this?
Doris Lessing: But I was surviving. It’s interesting. I’ve just seen today a resume of my life which said that I was working as a shorthand typist. Of course I wasn’t. They can’t believe that I actually lived on what I earned, which I did for years you know. It just … I had been writing for 10 years when somebody pointed out I was earning the average wage for a worker. Whatever it was. I can’t remember what it was at that, the last year. And you see, we didn’t think then the way people think now about if you write a book, then you have to get a lot of money.
Doris Lessing: It’s all gone. We just took it for granted we wouldn’t have much money. We didn’t have any and it didn’t bother us particularly. But nobody had any money, that’s the point, nobody was rich. And nobody was longing for a big refrigerator and two cars. We just didn’t. We thought it was all very vulgar and bourgeois of them.
So does that mean that the books you were writing in the sort of 1950s say that you felt quite free to write what you wanted. You didn’t have to worry about trying to please a publisher or please a public?
Doris Lessing: No. I had a very good. I wrote short stories, which no publisher then was pleased about. And then I just set off, one after the other and this is what I was doing and I don’t think I said: Now I am a writer. But I was, I suppose. It’s just it was different, it was completely different then.
And you were still, I mean the Children of Violence sort of series in the 1950s, those also, those books you were using quite a lot of your African experience.
Doris Lessing: Yes, a lot of it was autobiographical. Until about The Four Gated City which wasn’t.
No. And was Martha Quest the protagonist of those, was she a sort of alter ego for you?
Doris Lessing: Yes, she was. Not entirely, because, you know, you invent whole sections of something and then later, some biographer wants to know which is true and what isn’t and you have to sit and think. You can’t remember anymore. So no, a lot of it is invented and the half of it is true in inverted commas. But everything you write is altered in some way.
And in these novels, Martha gets involved, as I think you did, in Marxism, in communist politics, doesn’t she? Did you sort feel looking back that that was kind of a rich material for fiction?
Doris Lessing: One book, it was A Ripple from the Storm which is very, very close to what happened. But the joke is you see, this is a bit of an indictment, this the communist group in Southern Rhodesia. But a friend of mine said that a student of his had read this and was so amazed with the wonder of it all that he went off to join, I’ve forgotten what group or other to discover the same thing. And I thought this would put anybody off ever joining anything. So, but no. It’s the kind of thing that happens.
And you can never be sure what lessons people will take from a novel like this. I mean and after that, I mean 1962 I suppose, when The Golden Notebook was published, I mean that seems in its form a very different kind of thing.
Doris Lessing: Well, it was.
And I mean, formally it’s quite a … I mean, it’s a fairly extraordinary book now, but it must have been a very strange one, I think, for its first readers in all these different kind of … these multiple narratives reflecting different aspects of the protagonist’s experience. I mean, do you remember sort of devising that?
Doris Lessing: Oh, very clearly. But first of all there was a great demand in all the newspapers that the novel needed to have a new form. This was in the air, right. So when I was working this one out, because the essence of a Golden Notebook is I think I said before recently. The second sentence in a book, as far as I’m concerned, everything is cracking up. I thought this is what I was writing about. But not the feminists who said it was all about feminism. So anyway, so I was really teased about that for a long time.
Anyway, so how do I convey this fragmentation? I don’t know, I remember I got these notebooks and I remember actually imagining the notebooks. I remember that, the notebooks on their different tables. And it wrote very fast. It was very just ready to explode, that book. And it was very … You see what nobody now is going to remember, or care about, every time the telephone rang, somebody was leaving a communist party, committing suicide, taking you to religion, just becoming a famous businessman. It was an extraordinary time, it really was, and you see the party listen to me, after all these years. The party was such a strong experience for everybody. There was this utopia hatching itself out over there and a lot of people believed it, you know. Oh well, never mind, life goes on without me.
And did you, I mean, did you get much kind of reaction from …?
Doris Lessing: Yes, I got the most appalling reviews. Now people come and see me and say: I’ve just been reading your reviews in Collindale or wherever they are, and they’re terrible. And I say: Well yes, I remember. This balls breaker, this is a great favourite expression and a man hater.
Harold Bloom said it was a crusade against the male sex.
Doris Lessing: Has he said it recently?
No, I think he said it quite a while back.
Doris Lessing: Oh well, you see that’s the kind of thing they said. So what really made me cross was not one of these precious reviews noticed it had quite an interesting form. They didn’t even notice it. They were so upset by what I was saying apparently, they couldn’t bother to see anything else. Ever since then I’ve had a certain attitude towards reviews. They … it is possible for them not to be very bright, you know. So anyway, that was going on and I got … But some people sort of championed me in a very positive and good way like Edwin Muir, the poet who wrote to me a long letter about The Golden Notebook. And various people who said: Take no notice of them, they’re just dumb, you know.
So, and then time passed after all. The book had come out in all these different countries. America, everywhere by then. Except of course precious France and precious Germany who wouldn’t publish it because it was too abrasive. Can you imagine for 10 years? Everybody else was perfectly happy with The Golden Notebook, but no, they wouldn’t publish it. So, you know, one has to have, what can I say? This kind of experience gives one a certain attitude to places and people. Suddenly they publish it in the feminist days as a feminist document.
So the sections of conventional third person narrative in the novel, the bits which aren’t written in Anna’s notebooks are titled Free women and when I was re-reading it recently, that came to sound almost sarcastic actually.
Doris Lessing: It’s meant to be sarcastic. Because what it is is a conventional little novel, fitted into the West. And one of the things I was saying, I was trying to express the pain I think some writers feel. That all this experience, and it can be very rich and tumultuous experience, going into a tiny narrative. There was a tiny narrative. And there was the thick experience that went into it. So, and then of course, it all cracked up. Because don’t forget, I was seeing people cracking up at that time. When the communist party was shattered by Khrushchev and his speech, it was terrible for some communists. You know some people, their whole lives came to an end.
Particularly, for the working class boys from the East End, from the young communist league. This was their university. They learnt everything there. Suddenly, it’s all not true. Well, even now I’m sorry for them, it was such a terrible thing to happen. I mean for less, what is the word, tougher characters, their lives had come to an end. Some people were very sorry like I was that Khrushchev hadn’t said more than he did. Because some of us, knowing what was going on at the Soviet Union thought that he could have said a lot more. You know, it was quite a muted complaint that he gave about Stalin. So while some people were saying: Oh no, this couldn’t possibly be true, it’s all a capitalist press, which is what most orthodox communists said, other people would say: For god’s sake, why didn’t he do it properly. But, you see, it’s taken many, many years for it to come out.
I suppose this is a trick of time that now people think of The Golden Notebook, I mean the politics you’re talking about is sort of perhaps hidden history to lots of its new readers and they notice the sexual politics, I suppose, of it, much more than they notice what you’ve been saying about communism and the end of lots of peoples’ faith in that. And they notice, they notice I suppose, things about … I mean, how it seems an extraordinary satire on actually the behaviour of men. That’s one thing I think I noticed recently. I mean the men in the novel are a pretty ghastly lot aren’t they?
Doris Lessing: You said they were a ghastly lot. I’ve never seen it for how a … You know, they seem to me that some of them are just normal men.
Doris Lessing: Behaving normally. I’m sure you’re not like that. But …
There’s a lot, there are a lot of, I mean, it may be a reflection of the times.
Doris Lessing: You mean they were unfaithful to their wives.
There were a lot of married men in it, aren’t there, who are Anna and her friend Molly.
Doris Lessing: Yes.
They’re always ending up with these or getting the chance to end up briefly with these married men who are looking for a little bit of sort of, a little Friesian but without actually wanting to leave their sort of nice bourgeois lives.
Doris Lessing: Well, that seems to me nothing but the Paris realism. You have two women living alone, quite attractive women. In a society which I think was a pretty free society. I’m using it ironically. And so what do you expect to happen? I mean, I don’t want to be unduly cynical. So yes, anyway, what have I forgotten, I’ve lost my thread now.
Just thinking about the various kind of minor male characters in the novel. Anna Wolfe ends up being a marriage guidance counsellor doesn’t she?
Doris Lessing: I thought that was funny.
That is funny, yes.
Doris Lessing: And she’s the … Molly is in, I don’t know what, she’s doing something like that. Because don’t forget they were communists and waiting for the utopia to explode on the world.
Well, Molly having criticised marriage ends up getting married again.
Doris Lessing: Well, there you are, you see. This is … So, well I thought all of that was very funny. You just want to contrast it of what they were like. Communists fighting for the new world and look where they end up. Marriage guidance, I ask you.
Was it a long time before you were aware that that book had become, I don’t know, a bit of a cult book. Had made the impact amongst people who admired it. Not amongst people who’d detracted but amongst people who loved it. Did that take a long time to happen?
Doris Lessing: Yes, it took a bit of time. The thing is that it was, it was a cult book among the feminists which did me a lot of harm. Which had meant that as I’ve had letters from men, we didn’t read it because it was supposed to be a feminist book. And now it’s … yes I had that letter several times. So it didn’t do me any good the feminists. They never quite, they were very extreme the feminists of that time. I remember going to Sweden and some actress coming up to me and saying: This is my book, it is not your book. It is not yours. I only read the Blue Notebook. So this kind of exaggerated hysterical rubbish was going on.
Did it sort of, thinking just formerly what you’d done there. Did that give you a feeling that you were now free to experiment in other ways with how you made a novel or the kind of the genres of novel that you wrote?
Doris Lessing: Well, I was writing a lot of books that were not realistic, you know. The Memoirs of a Survivor and Briefing for a Descent into Hell. Those are my two non-realistic books before I got round to Shikasta. That was five books which I think are some of the best writing I’ve ever done. I know a lot of people did.
Your Canopus in Argos?
Doris Lessing: Yes.
Doris Lessing: So. You know, I’d already been doing all that before the Shikasta series. Which incidentally, each book is quite different from every other. It isn’t a series at all really. So … and then I wrote, I was just going on all the time. You see, I’ve never done anything else in my life. I didn’t ever have a vivid social life because I had a child. You can’t go dancing every night when you’ve got a child.
But people, I think, are thinking perhaps of the science fiction books. People sometimes think describe you as quite a sort of contrarian writer that as soon as you’ve established one way of doing things and you’ve got fans for that, you then go off and try something completely different and risk leaving all those admirers in your wake.
Doris Lessing: Well. You don’t leave. I mean things have changed now. The novel as you know is not everybody’s favourite cup of tea if I can put it like that. But I can remember being in San Francisco and somebody, a man stands up and says: Now Doris, I hope you’re not going to waste any more time on that boring old realism. And up bounces a woman and says: Now Doris, I hope you’re not going to write any of that awful science fiction. Then they get into an argument and the entire audience gets into an argument and I just listen. This wouldn’t happen now because nobody cares about. That’s the trouble. I mean, a novel is not where the passion is situated, is it? So I don’t think we’d have that now.
Can you tell us a bit more about why you found it so useful to you or so expressive for your purposes to write science fiction, why you wanted to do that.
Doris Lessing: I just did it because I wanted to write a book because somebody, not of this culture, said that nobody ever read the Old Testament, that is the Jewish books, the Apocrypha, the New Testament and the Koran, one after another. Nobody did. He said if anyone did that they would see that this is phases of the same religion, it’s perfectly obvious. So I did this and I thought: My god, of course it’s phases of the same religion. So then I was inspired to write Shikasta. But I didn’t think now I’m going to write Sci Fi. I just wrote it as it came along. And another book that I’d been wanting to write for a long time, that’s The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five. I had been thinking about it for 10 years. I couldn’t get it to gel. Suddenly, it just gelled.
There was something about writing that series that was enormously productive for me. I was suddenly able to write that book and then I wrote The Sirian Experiments which I think is one my very best. But however very few people ever read it. And so on. And then that was an end. And I’ve forgotten why it came to an end. It was some kind of legal something. I’ve forgotten what it was. And yes, you get all these things happening you forget. This was quite a dramatic thing that somebody or something signed up that series to go somewhere and I can’t remember where, and I can’t remember now even where it was going. But I stopped writing it. Which was a pity really. But it doesn’t matter, I wrote other books.
I just wanted to ask you actually after the Canopus in Argos books, you published what I suppose I’ve always taken as being a bit of a sort of rejoinder to the people who perhaps complained, critics who complained that you weren’t doing realism anymore because you publish The Diary of a Good Neighbour under a pseudonym, Jane Somers, didn’t you? I wonder if you could tell us about that little strategy?
Doris Lessing: Well, you get very bored if you’re in a … often it’s exactly the same thing as a previous review and so on. So I thought I’d write something like this and see what happened. And I knew perfectly well what would happen. Because this book went to my two main publishers at that time. And then neither of them wanted it. And I saw a couple of readers reports which were extremely iffy. But Michael Joseph, my first publisher took it. And so we swore her to secrecy. Now what was interesting is that two major publishing houses, with all these people working for them were able to keep quiet about the fact that I’d written.
That is incredible, yes.
Doris Lessing: Enormously impressed by that. Then it came out and I got the kind of reviews that a promising first book gets. But one interesting thing was, somebody wrote from America to say that the New York Times had commissioned a review which said that this was a wonderful book and they didn’t publish it. Now if in fact they had published it, that book would have done very well. Much better than just a promising first book. So it’s all very chancy all this you know. The whole thing. So then, nobody guessed who I was which I thought was quite extraordinary. Now the French and Germans published it not knowing it was me and they did quite … I was very pleased about that.
Wasn’t there something on the dust jacket, because I think I’ve seen a first edition of it and there’s something on the dust jacket which indicates that Jane Somers isn’t the real name of the author. I think it says something like the author is a well known London journalist or something.
Doris Lessing: Is that on the continent?
I think that’s on … Is that not on the British edition? I think it is.
Doris Lessing: I don’t know, I haven’t seen it.
That there’s some clue that it’s a pseudonym which would sort of, you know …
Doris Lessing: Well, I can’t remember now.
And I mean it’s a wonderful bleak, it’s a bleak book. I mean it’s almost if you want realism here is some very stringent realism indeed because it’s all about …
Doris Lessing: Old age.
Old age. Unblinkingly so.
Doris Lessing: For some reason I can’t remember now, I was involved with a group of old people not far away. There were three old women and an old man. And it went on for, what, seven or eight years, these people. But the one I really liked was Maudy who was a very angry old woman, well she was a very angry woman.
So the character’s based on a real …
Doris Lessing: Yes, she is. And then you see it ended in us. I can’t remember if it’s in the book or not. She died of cancer.
Yes, that’s in the book.
Doris Lessing: And I was very fond of her. But they all died, you see. They were as old as I am now. So they died, they have to die. And it was enormously instructive because there was a house not far from here where there was a good church going woman, Sarah, who did everything right like going to church meetings and parties and bus rides and all that. And the other bad one who had decided she couldn’t move from her chair, which was rubbish, and she got everyone running around after her. And she was a thoroughly bad lot. She really was a wicked old woman. But another interesting thing that happened was that you were watching the services, the complaint was that old people were living on the smell of an oil rag, how wicked. In actual fact, they had so much money, they couldn’t spend it. Because their rents were paid and their food was paid and everything was paid all the time.
And what actually happened was the weekly packet would stack up in drawers everywhere and it was quietly lifted by every social worker that came and, well, they needed money for their kids. So this is what actually happened, not as one likes to say it should happen. And some very high place social worker would come in and you’d see this rather thoughtful look come over her face. I’ll just nick out a couple of twenties. Into the bag, off you go.
I hadn’t realised that that novel was also based on sort of things that you’d observed for yourself.
Doris Lessing: Oh yes, it was, it was very, there was a lot of that.
What about then after that, there’s a novel that you published in 1985 which I confess is a favourite one of mine which I read soon after it was first published, The Good Terrorist, which seems in a way, although it’s about its own times, it seems also to take you back a bit to that territory of these sort of groups of self righteous so called idealists or political idealists.
Doris Lessing: Well, that was very much based. People have forgotten that everywhere, America, Europe, everywhere. There were these groups of so called revolutionaries, you know, we are revolutionaries. And they would be in a house somewhere, and I had very interesting letters about that. The most interesting being coming from Ireland saying did I realise that it was enough for these young people, if they wore the right uniform and used the right jargon to live quite happily for years, never go so much as to a political meeting? But they were revolutionaries. Now that era has absolutely gone with the death of the Soviet Union. That came to an end. But there were a lot of them you know. You met them all around the place.
And so that one was based on partly remembering what it was like being a member of a communist group when, you know, come the revolution, which was always said half laughing, which is very funny when I look back. And next door to me at that particular time, just down, across the road was a house stuffed full of squatters and revolutionaries. So I saw them quite a lot. But what was really interesting about this was they never stopped talking about money. They might be revolutionaries, but money, this is what they talked about. How to get the next payment from somewhere. So that was really hilarious.
The wonderful thing about the novel is, I think, is the central character, Alice, is this extraordinary and not completely unlikeable mixture of a sort of a home maker, she wants to make soup and look after people and she goes into squats and sees how they can be made into nice homes. And yet she has also this sort of … this kind of rhetoric of resentment and anger at the world she lives in and that extraordinary sort of mixture is, I think, what kind of makes it such a memorable novel.
Doris Lessing: Well, had it occurred to you that this is a contradiction at the heart of all socialist groups. I don’t know if they still say, come of the revolution which they at one point did. Or you fascist this, fascist that. That’s gone. While they were talking all this stuff, they were saving the whales and looking after cats and feeding the poor and all that. It’s right in the heart of that particular socialist tradition. It’s a very striking contradiction isn’t it?
Yes, yes. And it’s sort of … and Alice kind of … it ends that actually these people, although they’re sort of, they’re absurd really, they end up doing real harm don’t they?
Doris Lessing: Yes. Well that came out of the Harrods bombing.
Doris Lessing: I don’t know if you remember it?
I do very well.
Doris Lessing: The IRA said it wasn’t them. They were obviously disgusted to think any of us would think they could do anything so amateur as the Harrods bombing. So I was talking to a friend on the telephone about this bombing and I said: Well, obviously Alice did it, you know the real name. And I thought, my god, what a title for a novel. Because Alice had done it. This marvellous incompetence and idealism and rubbish that they live in. So we knew Alice very well. We watched her for years. And at one point her mother gave her some money, I mean the real Alice and her boyfriend said you must buy a yacht and we will use it for taking guns to the IRA. So they bought a yacht but they never used it for anything but having fun somewhere. It’s just … you know.
And in the 1990s, I mean you were writing these novels and more that we haven’t talked about. In the 1990s, you wrote a couple of volumes of autobiography as well which I think some people like as much as your novels. But you stopped in 1962 with those. I mean they only take your life to 1962. Why did you decide?
Doris Lessing: Well, it’s very simple. In 1960, I was one of these earth mothers. And the house was full of kids and trouble in one way or another. And in it at that time, I don’t know if you noticed it. There were these women with housefuls of kids. Why did that happen? I don’t know why it did. But the point is that all these kids are now grown up and are close friends and I couldn’t possibly write about them. I just couldn’t do it. So I wrote The Sweetest Dream but I didn’t use the people but I used, I hope, the atmosphere of the 60s. And that started off because I was in Germany being interviewed. And this young man wanted to know about the 60s. And he’s talking with such contempt. I said: Whatever else, it had this most wonderful generosity. And I said: Imagine, a young man will just turn up somewhere and say my name is Bert and I’m a friend of Freddy’s. Can I come in? Oh, do come in, and they might be there for a month. He said: You can’t just let anybody into your house just like that. You can’t do that. He might be a thief. And I said: But maybe he was a thief, but this is what we did. And I thought my god, everyone has forgotten it.
And it was in fact a wonderfully generous time because it was going on everywhere. I’ve got letters somewhere from other earth mothers and sort of. The one that I like best was someone in Mississippi or somewhere saying: I understand that you’ve had Tom there. Don’t you think we should do something about his teeth. Wonderful. Anyway, I can’t remember about his teeth. We probably did do something about his teeth.
So there’s sort of affection as well as ridicule when you look back to …
Doris Lessing: I don’t ridicule. It was a wonderfully … Well, no-one now can just go round the world on a half a sentence: You know, I’m Freddy and I know Janet. I mean it was wonderful wasn’t it?
Well, I don’t know, I didn’t really live through it I suppose.
Doris Lessing: No, well I think it was terrific. No-one could do it now because you’re too suspicious.
Yes. And you were writing also, I don’t know if this is a fair way of describing that some of your books from the late 80s and the 1990s they seem sort of just like Shakespeare wrote problem plays, I think you wrote some problem novels. So there’s The Fifth Child for instance, about a couple who think they’re going to have this kind of wonderful blissful family life and they have a sort of malevolent child. Or there’s Love, Again about a woman in the1990s, about a woman who thinks all the sort of tumult of passion is perhaps with relief passed and then she falls in love again. I mean is that a … to think of them as problem.
Doris Lessing: I’ve never thought of it as problem novels. The Fifth Child. It was simply because I wanted to write a version of the fairy leaving a baby in a human cradle. Because, you know, it’s an ancient story in practically every culture, which makes you wonder if in fact babies have been left in cradles and we’ve forgotten that time. Because I maintain there were little people. They’ve just found some over in Sumatra somewhere called the Flores, have you read about them?
No, I haven’t, no.
Doris Lessing: They found a race of people who are humans but smaller. And some of the scientists say no, this is totally impossible, this is just an abhorrent human. Couldn’t be, but other scientists say no, these were human beings, they were just smaller. And I always thought this always. Where did our tales come from about the little people. It was based on something. So I think there were little people. And so we called them fairies or trolls or whatever. But I’m sure they were here. Why does every second garden have gnomes in it? What are we remembering? We’re remembering something. It’s half out of memory.
And you’ve done fantasy although I don’t know if fantasy’s the right word for it but quite recently, I mean only a year ago, you published The Cleft which is … is fantasy the right word for it, it’s an extraordinary kind of imaginative projection of a sort of primitive tale in which the female sex pre-existed the male sex and then …
Doris Lessing: Well, it was in the papers of that time. You know how there’s an idea and it’s around and it disappears. The idea was that the basic human stock was female and then men came along later. The more you think about this, the more it explains. Because as you know, all women say men are just nothing but children.
Doris Lessing: I mean nearly always. So I thought it made a lot of sense if we had women on their seashore, you know because it was a very nice climate, they just ate fish, they never had anything to startle them out of their boring life. And suddenly men arrived. You know, men always rushing after Eiger and going around the world on small boats. Must have been very like Top Gear suddenly arrived.
Doris Lessing: Must have been awful for the poor girls.
I wonder if our international viewers will know what Top Gear is, but …
Doris Lessing: I don’t know. Well it’s a very, it’s one of the funniest programmes on television.
Inadvertently though isn’t it?
Doris Lessing: I know it’s so hilarious. It’s about motoring.
About men in cars, yes.
Doris Lessing: And I swear that all women must look at that just marvelling. There you have these men, absorbed in these horrible cars. I’ve laughed so much over that programme. Anyway, just imagine the girls who’ve never ever been upset by anything. Not only do they have little boys with penises. Because I’m going back to memory when I had my first child. There was a woman in the same room who was having her third child. She’d had two girls and this was a boy. I was having my first. And she was in a state of absolute incandescent. She says to the nurse: What’s this? Meaning that little boys apparatus. So the nurse said: Oh Mrs Johnson, aren’t you lucky, you’ve got such a dear little boy. Take it away, I’m not taking that home. So I said to her: What’s the matter with you, you know there’s my boy. She says: I’m not going to take that. I mean look at it. Isn’t that horrible. Because you probably know because you’ve got children that little boys have a lot of physical apparatus. Then it goes into … it sort of comes right in about a week or two. But it’s quite a surprise seeing a newborn baby. They’re all generals. Well, just imagine these poor girls suddenly faced with this. So it’s quite a funny idea actually.
I mean, since then you’ve written another book actually, Alfred & Emily, you’re still writing. I mean that’s a book which I think uses, I mean explores in a certain way the lives of your parents, is that right? I wonder if you could tell us a bit about that.
Doris Lessing: Well, the reason for that is. For no reason I can see the wars in my life sit on me more and more as a kind of horror. I still can’t believe that we’re so stupid as to. Anyway, it’s no good going into it. Either you feel that way or you don’t. I’m so appalled by those wars. I mean the First World War by god, it did Europe in. We’re still living in the aftermath.
And that book’s about … isn’t that book about the aftermath?
Doris Lessing: Yes, I’ve simply taken my parents and abolished World War I. And if I might remind you, no World War I, no Russian Revolution, no Soviet Union, no Soviet Empire, no Hitler, no Holocaust, no World War II. It all came from World War I. And I’ve given them rather ordinary lives. Sort of decent, sensible lives. Particularly my mother, who has some money and can use it, which she should have done. And made my father a farmer, because he longed all his life to be an English farmer in Essex or Suffolk where his forbears came from. So I gave him that and I gave him a nice loving wife instead of a rather prickly one. And then I have the second half of the book which is what actually happened which I think is a heartbreaker. Because that’s my father’s life as it happened. You know, he got diabetes, he got all the things that you get as an effect of diabetes.
So the book has the imagined life and the real life sort of interleafed.
Doris Lessing: So I think it’s an anti war book. It’s a war violently against … It’s a book against war. Which I felt all my life and I just feel it more and more. And things like Iraq. I mean I don’t have to go into that. There’s so many people appalled by it.
So you’re still sort of feeling driven to write things?
Doris Lessing: Yes. Well, I don’t think so anymore. I think I’ve had it. I don’t have any energy.
Well, I don’t, I’m not sure I believe.
Doris Lessing: The energy’s gone.
I’m not sure I believe it.
Doris Lessing: Well, that’s alright, I haven’t got it.
Well, I mean it’s an incredible sort of urge to go back over and it’s very kind of you to do that for us. And thanks very much, Doris.
Doris Lessing: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it, thank you.
Interview with the 2007 Nobel Laureate in Literature Doris Lessing at her home in London, 14 April 2008. The interviewer is Professor John Mullan.
Doris Lessing talks about the inspiration for her first book, ‘The Grass is Singing’, the autobiographical nature of her ‘Children of Violence’ sequence of novels (10:29), ‘The Golden Notebook’ (12:23) and how it became a cult book (21:30), and why she took a foray into science fiction writing with her ‘Canopus in Argos’ series of novels (22:50). She also talks about the two novels she published under the pseudonym Jane Somers (26:45), why her autobiographies go no further than 1962 (36:55), and being an earth mother in the 1960s (37:20). Finally, she discusses her latest novel, ‘Alfred and Emily’, which explores the life of her parents and the horrors of war (44:30).
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