Doris Lessing: interview

From African revolutionary to reluctant darling of the London establishment, author Doris Lessing has travelled a long way in her 88 years. Time Out finds the lauded author on feisty form, discussing mescaline, life as a feminist icon in China and why her latest novel will be her last

  • Doris Lessing: interview

    'This governent's got the strangest attitude to organisations trying to help: I hate it!' says Lessing © Rob Greig

  • Doris Lessing’s strangest sexual encounter was with theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. ‘We knew each other off and on for years, and there was never a spark of sexual feeling between us,’ she declares. ‘But one time I had to stay the night with him because it was late. I wasn’t expecting anything but a nice chat. I went to get ready for bed and when I came back all these whips had appeared. What was really strange was that he never said anything like, “Oh Doris, would you like a little whipping?” And I never said, “Ken, what are all these whips for?” So we chatted away about politics, went to sleep, then, in the morning, in comes his secretary to tidy away the whips. It was so funny.’

    I meet her at her West Hampstead home on a warm February afternoon, just two weeks after she has received the Nobel Prize for literature in London – the announcement of which she famously greeted with the words ‘I couldn’t care less’. Osteoporosis and its attendant back problems means that moving around isn’t easy, so it’s almost as much an act of defiance as a hospitable gesture when she insists on making tea for myself and the photographer in her tiny and characterfully cluttered kitchen. An army of olive oil bottles and jam jars has commandeered a third of a round table , while in the opposite corner of the room there’s a smaller invasion of cat-bowls.

    Lessing is as indulgent towards cats as she is hostile towards sacred cows. Her post-Nobel declaration to Spanish paper El País that ‘September 11 was terrible but, if one goes back over the history of the IRA, what happened to the Americans wasn’t that terrible,’ stirred up a predictable furore. Then, five days before this interview, she took a swipe at racism in the US by telling a Swedish newspaper her fears that Barack Obama would be assassinated were he to be elected. Today her anger is aimed at the Labour government; she’s furious because it has imposed funding cuts on Book Aid International (BAI), an organisation which promotes literacy in developing countries by exporting secondhand books. In her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, her description of young black Zimbabweans teaching themselves to read off the back of jam jars in a country where it now costs several years’ wages to buy a paperback prompted Harper Collins to donate 10,000 books to schools in Zimbabwe. But funding to BAI has been cut. ‘This government’s got the strangest attitude to organisations trying to help: I hate it!’ she rails.

    Although Lessing was born in Persia, it was famously Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, that shaped her. Her parents – Alfred, an amputee World War I veteran and Emily Maude, a nurse – moved to Africa to start up a farm when she was five. The richness of the landscape erupts into her early prose, yet despite its beauty – ‘if they got a government that had any nous, that country could be a bloody paradise’ – the social restrictions provoked her into early rebellion. When she left for London in 1949 she was twice divorced, had left behind two children with her first marriage (she once potently described the ‘Himalayas of tedium’ of young motherhood), had acquired a third child after marrying the German Communist Gottfried Lessing as ‘my revolutionary duty’, and was known as a communist and a lover of blacks.

    After her first marriage, Lessing entered a circle of progressive intellectuals and communists. She thrived in this environment for, despite lacking a university education, she had a well-developed, forensic intelligence, and even after leaving the Communist Party in 1956 declared: ‘There is no group of people or type of intellectual I have met outside the [Communist] Party which isn’t ill-informed, frivolous and parochial, compared with certain types of intellectual inside the Party.’ Does she still believe that? ‘Yes, I do. There was a certain morality that went with being a communist.’ This could have its blackly funny sides: she recalls her friend, the novelist Naomi Mitchison, on a cultural delegation to Moscow when they were still unaware of Stalin’s mass murders ‘trying to get the Russians to accept that language is very dangerous. Can you imagine her – with her heavy Oxford accent – telling these crooks they had to be careful with the way they used their words?’

    Books had helped shape her preconceptions of London, and when she arrived, some of it matched her expectations. ‘All the dock area was very Dickens and small parts of it still are. You know: rotting poles in the water, trailing ropes and little alleys where you can imagine appalling events.’ She arrived before the Clean Air Act of 1956, so was also privy to Dickensian fogs. ‘I remember going to the opera and Covent Garden was filled with that yellow smog. You could hardly see the stage. Yet there was [Mozart’s] Queen of the Night singing up there in the fog; it was the most magical thing I had ever seen. I sent a description to the New Statesman and was rebuked for finding pleasure in a fog that had also killed several people.’

    Lessing has proved both more versatile and prolific than Dickens – today she has almost 60 works to her name, including poetry, science-fiction, drama, and opera – yet when she arrived here she had only written one novel, ‘The Grass is Singing’. Its enthusiastic reception was enough to propel her into London’s inner circle of writers and intellectuals. The roll-call of those she has either dealt with or befriended since reads like an essential guide to twentieth-century western culture: John Berger, Henry Kissinger, John Osborne, Paul Robeson, Bertrand Russell and Kenneth Tynan. Dramatist Arnold Wesker, still a friend, remembers her from the late ’50s as ‘stunningly beautiful; like everyone else, I was captivated by her. Part of her attraction was, of course, that she was about 15 years older and a prize-winning novelist, and I, a novice to literary life, could learn from her. She was a good cook and gave wonderfully cosy dinner parties where we picked food from an assortment of plates and sat cross-legged eating it. She was like the best of her characters: concerned about friends, hugely intelligent, a no-nonsense person. She was impatient with humbug and pretentiousness. If you were guilty of neither of these you were welcomed like family.’

    Lessing’s first award was the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1954; since then she’s been shortlisted for the Man Booker five times, and won the WH Smith Literary Award and Germany’s Shakespeare Prize, among others. But, although that first success brought much needed money, it also delivered an emotional shock. Her lover at the time – a Czech psychiatrist she calles ‘Jack’ in her autobiography – responded to her news with the words ‘that’s it, that’s the end’.

    ‘It’s an absolutely male, instinctive response,’ she declares. ‘I was desperately hurt. I have a feeling it wouldn’t be that different now. He was the great love of my life and it did come to an end after that, even if not immediately.’

    Their love affair is one of the many fictionalised strands in ‘The Golden Notebook’ (1962). Despite the success of such later works as ‘Briefing For A Descent into Hell’, ‘The Good Terrorist’ and her autobiographies, that remains her most celebrated. She has lashed out at attempts to frame her as a feminist icon because of it, but today concedes ‘a lot of tension went into that book; that’s why it keeps popping up. It’s just been reissued in China. What the hell they do with it there I don’t know!’ A pertinent comment on a book that traces a woman’s often sceptical analysis of communism as well as her fight for intellectual and sexual freedom.

    Lessing, who travelled to China in the ’80s, is characteristically as interested in the country’s own literature as in its embracing of her writing. Her admiration for Xiaolu Guo, author of ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers’, also shows how the relentlessly unclubbable Lessing is drawn to exiles: she has spent much time with them in London, and at one stage her home became a welcoming point for Africans escaping from countries that would later take them back as leaders. Today she talks about a prominent Zimbabwean businessman who turned down a position in Mugabe’s government and now lives in council accommodation in London (‘I’m not going to say where; the Mugabe regime has long fingers’). Back in the ’50s those she entertained included Kenneth Kaunda, the founding president of Zambia. One exile told her he had been warned about her by the British secret services; they asserted that she was involved in dangerous conspiracies with Arabs (‘That was such a joke – I wasn’t!’). She was also classed a ‘prohibited immigrant’ in Rhodesia, so despite now being one of literature’s most respected figures, she knows all about being considered a political undesirable.

    It’s much to her delight, I’m sure, that ‘respectable’ is a word that dissolves when it comes too close into contact with Lessing. ‘Unpredictable’ is more appropriate for the woman who has had numerous lovers; dabbled in mescaline (‘I only took it once: my friend Naomi Mitchison had a very bad trip where for a year it looked as if people’s heads were rolling off their shoulders’); and abandoned atheism for a spiritual exploration that eventually led her to Sufism. Now this most prolific and joyously unpredictable of writers has written the novel she claims will be her last. ‘Alfred & Emily’ looks at how life might have turned out for her parents had it not been for World War I.

    How does she think her own children might have wanted her life to be different? (John, the eldest, died of a heart attack in 1992 but Jean still lives in Africa and her younger son, Peter, lives with Lessing, and because of illness, is cared for by her.) She’s already remarked that she had to buy her house because Peter wanted stability and says the other two would ‘probably keep me at home, like a good mother’. She smiles, and gazes reflectively through the French windows, which open on to a postage stamp-sized roof terrace, fringed with lilac trees from the garden. ‘Look,’ she exclaims quietly, ‘the sun is going.’

    ‘Alfred & Emily’ will be published by Harper Collins on May 5 at £16.99.

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