October 14, 2007

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

This year, for a change, I approve of a Nobel pick--though I got a great kick out of seeing just how underwhelmed Lessing was when told the news. "I've won every bloody prize in Europe, why do you have to bother me like this?" Which might seem like an ungracious response to a microphone stuck in your face out of nowhere when you were peacefully steeping out the back seat of a car, but it's reported Lessing's been on the short list of the Nobel committee for 40 years. (Her story is that 40 years ago she was told the Nobel committee didn't like her. That wore off presumably, or the people who held that opinion died out.) Look over the list of the winners in that period--there certainly aren't any better writers than Doris Lessing on it (supposing that's a possibility) and probably not more than three that are arguably in her class. The writers who might be compared to Lessing are mostly conspicuous by their absence (going right back to the turn of the century) and in many cases--recently, Peter Barnes, R.A. Lafferty, Dennis Potter, Janet Frame--the error can never now be rectified. Assuming the committee is right now on a roll, what about Alasdair Gray next year? If he lasts as long as Lessing has, there's a 14 year window of opportunity, but where's the guarantee of that?

The Golden Notebook's the one everyone talks about, and scarcely needs my recommendation. Read it if you haven't, read it again if you have. Enjoy.

Shikasta may be just as good. (Thomas Disch said in an interview that Lessing's science fiction novels were dreadful, and about the other four I agree with him. One of them is 150 pages of weak rhetoric contending against rhetoric as a corrosion of language. Plato's argument, which she derives hers from, is equally weak but not quite so wordy.

About Shiikasta I'd quarrel with him though. It's a story that freely overleaps centuries and millenia and takes our entire planet for its locale. Here's a passage that stood out for me:

"This woman, this man, restless, irritable, grief-stricken, sleeping too much to forget their situation or unable to sleep, looking everywhere for some good or sustenance that will not at once give way as they reach out for it and slide off into reproach or nothingness--one of them takes a leaf up from the pavement, carries it home, stares at it. There it lies in a palm, a brilliant gold, a curled, curved, sculptured thing, balanced like a feather, ready to float and to glide, there it rests, lightly, for a breath may move it, in that loosely open, slightly damp, human palm, and the mind meditating there sees its supporting ribs, the myriads of its veins branching, and rebranching, its capillaries, the minuscule areas of its flesh which are not--as it seems to this brooding human eye--fragments of undifferentiated veins, but, if one could see them, highly structured worlds, the resources of chemical and microscopic cell life, viruses, bacteria--a universe in each pin-point of leaf. It is already being dragged into the soil as it lies there captive, a shape as perfect as a ship's sail in full wind, or the shell of a snail. But what is being looked at is not this curved exquisite exactness, for the slightest shift of vision shows the shape of matter thinning, fraying, attacked by a thousand forces of growth and death. And this is what an eye tuned slightly, only slightly, differently would see looking out of the window at that tree which shed the leaf on to the pavement--since it is autumn and the tree's need to conserve energy against the winter is on it--no, not a tree, but a fighting seething mass of matter in the extremes of tension, growth, destruction, a myriad of species of smaller and smaller creatures feeding on each other, each feeding on the other, always--that is what this tree is in reality, and this man, this woman, crouched tense over the leaf, feels nature as a roaring creative fire in whose crucible species are born and die and are reborn in every breath . . . every life. . . every culture. . . every world. . . the mind, wrenched away from its resting place in the close visible cycles of growth and renewal and decay, the simplicities of birth and death, is forced back, and back and into itself, coming to rest--tentatively and without expectation--where there can be no rest, in the thought that always, at every time, there have been species, creatures, new shapes of being, making harmonious wholes of interacting parts, but these over and over again crash! are swept away!--crash go the empires, and the civilizations, and the explosions that are to come will lay to waste seas and oceans and islands and cities, and make poisoned deserts where the teeming detailed inventive life way, and where the mind and heart used to rest, but may no longer, but must go forth like the dove sent by Noah, and at last after long circling and cycling see a distant mountaintop emerging from wastes of soiled water, and must settle there, looking around at nothing, nothing but the wastes of death and destruction, but cannot rest there either, knowing that tomorrow or next week or in a thousand years, this mountaintop too will topple under the force of a comet's passing, or the arrival of a meteorite.
. . .
"And when the dark comes, he will look up and out and see a little smudge of light that is a galaxy that exploded millions of years ago, and the oppression that had gripped his heart lifts, and he laughs, and he calls his wife and says: Look, we are seeing something that ceased to exist millions of years ago--and she sees, exactly, and laughs with him.
"This, then is the condition of Shikastans now, still only a few, but more and more, and soon. multitudes.

"Nothing they handle or see has substance, and so they repose in their imaginations on chaos, making strength from the possibilities of a creative destruction. They are weaned from everything but the knowledge that the universe is a roaring engine of creativity, and they are only temporary manifestations of it.

"Creatures infinitely damaged, reduced and dwindled from their origins, degenerate, almost lost--animals far removed from what was first envisaged for them by their designers, they are being driven back and back from everything they had and held and now can take a stand nowhere but in the most outrageous extremities of--patience. It is an ironic, and humble, patience, which learns to look at a leaf, perfect for a day, and see it as an explosion of galaxies, and the battleground of species. Shikastans are, in their awful and ignoble end, while they scuffle and scrabble and scurry among their crumbling and squalid artefacts, reaching out with their minds to heights of courage and . . . I am putting the word faith here. After thought. With caution. With an exact and hopeful respect."

Much of Lessing's work remains undiscovered country for me. I think I'll begin by tacking The Four-Gated City again. I've tried reading it through more than once, and while I've gotten through hundred page swatches with considerable pleasure, I've yet to succeed at that. It's about time I did.
If there were no better reason for celebrating than how much this award got up the nose of Mr. Tweed Suited Pretension himself, Harold Bloom, that might be almost enough. But there are far better reasons.

C 2007 Martin Heavisides


Nonnie Augustine said...

Thanks for that passage of Lessing, Martin. I've read older works, and realize I've missed a couple of decades of her output. I like the crack about Harold Bloom, too. Although, having just read "The Art of Reading Poetry," I gotta admit, I learned stuff. Nonnie

Andrew Tibbetts said...

Lessing's great, for every novel I devour there's another I find indigestible- that's something in itself isn't it? She's brave. She never aims for consistency. How many authors have such a diverse body of work? And yet remain so purely themselves?

Martin Heavisides said...

Thanks for stopping by, both of you. Bloom probably knows a little about reading poetry, but not enough to know if you're going to call an anthology 'the best poems in the English language' you give Ben Jonson--who was a much finer lyric poet--considerably more space than Shakespeare. Among other errors of omission and commission.
Yes, there's an intriguing quality of going her own way in Lessing, which makes for a rebarbative quality in some of her work, but is no bad quality nevertheless.