Literature is analysis after the event. Doris Lessing from The Golden Notebook.
To say that Doris Lessing had a huge impact on me as both a person and a writer is a monumental understatement.
I first read Lessing in 1970. For two years I had poured all of my energy into the American antiwar movement. At the time I read The Golden Notebook the New Left was exploding into fiery fragments. It was a time of bombs going off on campuses, of the Weatherman faction of SDS at the height of its insanity, of paranoia, of bone-grinding fear, of bleak nihilism. For two years I had not read fiction. I remembered the writers I used to love, felt a nostalgia for a lost time when an innocent sweetness had been possible, but in 1970, it was not possible to admire John Updike for his elegant prose. Then, suddenly, there was Lessing in all of her fury and intensity: WAKE UP, this is serious, this is BLOODY serious, this MEANS SOMETHING.
Anna, her shredded character split into four notebooks – I had never seen anything like that. Every twist, turn and backtracking of Anna’s inner and outer lives – I had never seen anything like that either. Lessing didn’t give a damn about beautiful language. She wasn’t creating art. She wasn’t writing “political” stories either. She exposed empty rhetoric, canned verbiage, correct positions. Lessing was not writing for a constituency. She was going after the truth with an unimaginable ferocity. Yes, I thought, fiction could mean something, could be real, could act as a lever in the world. Before America had interrupted me, I had been trying to write fiction. After reading Lessing, I thought that maybe I would try to write it again.
After The Golden Notebook, I read the Martha Quest novels – The Children of Violence – that ended with the magnificent Four Gated City. She called that series a Bildungsroman. I had never heard that word before. I’d been piling up masses of paper about a character I called “John Dupre.” Maybe I could make that into a Bildungsroman. Maybe, like Lessing, I could make it into something real – not merely literature. My entire career as a writer is founded upon Doris Lessing.
Here is Anna confronting her Jungian analyst:
‘Look, if I said to you when I came in this afternoon: Yesterday I met a man at a party and I recognized in him the wolf, or the knight, or the monk, you’d nod and you’d smile, and we’d both feel the joy of recognition. But if I’d said: Yesterday I met a man at a party and suddenly he said something, and I thought: Yes, there’s a hint of something – there’s a crack in that man’s personality like a gap in the dam, and through that gap the future might pour into a different shape – terrible perhaps, or marvelous, but something new – if I said that, you’d frown.”
‘Did you meet such a man?’ She demanded, practically.
Doris Lessing has gone into Great Time. Alas and farewell.