Lost Word: Re­mem­ber­ing Doris Less­ing

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion - By Claire Ho­p­ley

No­bel Prize-win­ner Doris Less­ing, who died Sun­day at age 94, ar­rived in Eng­land in 1949 with the manuscript of a novel called “The Grass is Singing.” It’s about a lonely white woman liv­ing on an iso­lated African farm who falls in love with her black ser­vant. It be­came an in­stant best-seller in Eng­land. Not so in South Africa or south­ern Rhode­sia (now Zim­babwe), where it was set and where she had grown up. It was banned be­cause she had attacked the so­cial and racial sta­tus quo. That was typ­i­cal of her. She was what the English call a stir­rer: ready to mix things up — in the in­ter­ests of re­form, yes, but more im­por­tantly, to fer­ret out the hid­den or rev­e­la­tory. Hav­ing stirred once, she was ever ready to stir and stir again so she could ex­pe­ri­ence new ideas and see where they led.

“One must have a vi­sion to build to­wards,” she wrote in 1957, “And that vi­sion must spring from the na­ture of the world we live in.” De­scrib­ing the era as “dan­ger­ous, vi­o­lent, ex­plo­sive and pre­car­i­ous,” she moved on from the short, tightly fo­cused “The Grass is Singing” to write a five-vol­ume se­quence called “The Chil­dren of Vi­o­lence” that she glossed as be­ing about “peo­ple like my­self.” She aimed “to ex­plain what it is like to be a hu­man be­ing in a cen­tury when you open your eyes on war and on hu­man be­ings dis­lik­ing other hu­man be­ings.” Martha Quest, the cen­tral char­ac­ter, shares many of her cre­ator’s ex­pe­ri­ences: grow­ing up on an un­prof­itable Rhode­sian farm with par­ents scarred by their ser­vice in World War I; leav­ing school at 14; work­ing in the cap­i­tal, Sal­is­bury; meet­ing Bri­tish sol­diers; and be­com­ing in­volved in pol­i­tics.

The first four vol­umes of “The Chil­dren of Vi­o­lence” are re­al­is­tic — no sur­prise from an au­thor who had as­serted that “the re­al­ist novel, the re­al­ist story, is the high­est form of prose writ­ing.” Then she wrote “The Golden Note­book.” It de­scribes a blocked writer who records her ex­pe­ri­ences in dif­fer­ent note­books be­cause they are too dis­parate to cap­ture in one note­book. A men­tal break­down even­tu­ally helps her pull her life to­gether. Men­tal break­down as heal­ing ex­em­pli­fies Less­ing’s en­thu­si­asm for help­ful new ideas.

“The Golden Note­book,” pub­lished in 1962, was another best-seller, with Anna Wulf, the main char­ac­ter, be­com­ing a hero­ine of the bur­geon­ing fem­i­nist move­ment. Less­ing would have none of it. Did fem­i­nists re­ally want “over­sim­pli­fied state­ments about men and women?”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Doris Less­ing in 2007 af­ter re­ceiv­ing news of her win­ning the No­bel Prize for lit­er­a­ture

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