OBITUARY II : The Lessing Legend

[Doris Lessing, a Nobel Literature laureate and one of the most important literary figures of our time, passed away at the age of 94. Born in Iran on October 22, 1919, she was brought up in southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) since the age of 3. Her first novel, The Grass is Singing, is an unsparing exploration of race and gender power in colonial Africa. She is best known for The Golden Notebook (1962), which, along with her other writings, reflected her complex relationship with communist and feminist movements. Below are excerpts from Paul Foot’s review of Lessing’s Walking In The Shade, Volume two of my autobiography 1949-1962, from Socialist Review, No.216, February 1998, pp.26-27. Copyright © 1998 Socialist Review. Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.]

When they are dead, heroes and heroines cannot let you down. When they are contemporary, still writing and thinking, they can cause the most frightful disillusionment. I still remember my indignation when, more than 20 years ago, I read the last chapter of E.P. Thompson’s book on the Black Acts of the 18th century, Whigs and Hunters.

The chapter, which subscribed to the idea of an eternal and consistent rule of law independent of economic circumstances, seemed to me an appalling betrayal of the Marxist clarity of Thompson’s great history book, The Making of the English Working Class.

I recall something very similar much later when I started, but could not finish, Doris Lessing’s novel The Good Terrorist, published at the height of Thatcherism during the Great Miners’ Strike. This novel seemed to me nothing more nor less than reactionary propaganda.

How could such a ferocious assault on left wing commitment have been mounted by such a committed left winger? Doris Lessing’s early Martha Quest novels are full of life and energy and a passion to change the world. She became a Communist in the most unlikely circumstances – in Rhodesia during the war – and, against all the odds, lived her life according to her principles.

The Golden Notebook, which was started in the late 1950s and published in 1962, is one of the great novels of our time. Its central theme is the condescension of women, and the relationship of that condescension to the subordination of the majority of the human race. The Golden Notebook is often described as a ‘women’s book’ and so of course it is. But it is a man’s book too. The novel hardly ever pontificates, but more than anything else I have ever read it grapples with a secular sexual morality which makes it compulsive and compulsory reading for men. …

The novel throbs with a passion for liberation: liberation from masculine patronising, from puritanical commandments and enforced stereotypical nuclear families, from baptisms and weddings and all other superstitious ceremonial….