Monday, January 19, 2009

Margaret Drabble on Doris Lessing

Margaret Drabble on Doris Lessing

Lessing has never followed literary fashion. She has always been ahead of it, in theme and in content, and at times in narrative mode. Ideologies have caught up with her and tried to swallow her up and appropriate her, but she has always shaken herself free and moved on. Although she is most widely known (and particularly to those who have not read her) as a leading figure in the women's movement, her work encompasses much more than this label suggests. I am not suggesting that this was in itself a negligible achievement: it was through her writing about women's lives as wives and lovers and mothers that I first discovered her, and she spoke uniquely to my needs during the 1960s and 70s, as she did to those of many of us. But there is more to her work than this.

One of her best-known and most alarming stories, "To Room Nineteen", struck me when I first read it as an appallingly bleak feminist account of the utter worthlessness of a woman's life: playing the role of good wife and mother, even playing it well, landed you alone, in a chair, in a rented room in Paddington, turning on the gas. Lessing interprets this tale differently, not in terms of the doom of gender, but as an account of depression and the "descent into hell" (another of her titles).

"The last-ditch depressives," she writes, "suffer a vision of life so bleak, so ugly, so terrible, that no wonder they sometimes kill themselves." Men who returned from the trenches, she reminds us, suffered in this way, too. Of this story, she has also said that it is "a quite terrible story, not least because I don't understand it, or rather the region of myself it comes from". She has always been able to write herself out of these moods of disaster, and the honesty of her descriptions of them and encounters with them is salutary and fortifying. She has been the guide of a generation. She is (to quote yet another of her titles) a survivor, and she has documented an age.

The Guardian - Margaret Drabble on Doris Lessing


Peter said...

I must admit that I never read Doris and rather am part of those who have heard and read quite a lot about her. I promise that I will do something about it – soonest! With which one should I start?

Claudia said...

I recomend the short stories to begin with, Peter.