Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hurrah for Doris Lessing!

It's terrific that Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature. She's been the leading novelist in English since her 1962 book The Golden Notebook, which I read in the 1970s and thought was the best novel by a woman I'd ever read until then.. The Golden Notebook was the novel that affected me the most as a young writer. Then I read her multi-volume series of novels Children of Violence, which I always thought splendid.

Doris Lessing taught a whole generation about honesty and courage. She taught us a woman writer can write honestly about anything. The author is scrupulously honest about her heroines' lives: marrying the wrong man; falling in love with the wrong lovers. The heroines like Lessing herself join the Communist Party and then leave it. Also her heroine in The Golden Notebook can be a devoted mother as well as go mad for a while.

Her heroines in both the one volume The Golden Notebook and the multi-volume Children of Violence have serious political lives--they live in Southern Rhodesia and fight to end segregation. They befriend refugees from the World War II. They have complicated love lives. They are at times very foolish and at other times very brave. In the Children of Violence series the first novel Martha Quest is a fine tale of a passive, directionless adolescent who floats her way into marriage with a man she doesn't care for; A Proper Marriage, the second volume, is a comic assault on the bourgeois marriage with its compromises and petty infidelties. But my favorite is A Ripple from the Storm, where the heroine leaves her bourgeois marriage for a unsuitable 2nd husband and the Communist Party but both leave her unfulfilled. Her flawed heroines do show great courage in growing up in provincial, conformist white Southern Rhodesia to totally break with their bourgeois lives when young to be political against British colonialism.

Yes, I loved Jane Austin and Emily Bronte but but they were 19th century women whose heroines lived in a domestic sphere but not in the wider world. I loved Virginia Woolf but she writes early 20th century heroines who clearly are struggling with the angels in the house--the angel of sacrifice as well as the angel of purity. Lessing wrote complicated mid-20th century women in their books. Her women don't follow the Angel of Sacrifice who sacrifices her life for husband or children. Yes, her heroines have children but they also insist on having political, erotic, and work lives. A women in her novels even describe menstruating--they have bodies. They describe their sexual experiences. Her women and also her men don't avoid the politics of their times but face it full on--segregation, colonialism, Holocaust, world wars, etc. etc. They may make flawed choices, but always face up to it.

If you point to one author who created heroines who were mothers to 21st century women, it is Lessing. Doris lessing is the mother of us all!

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