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.’
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In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, one of the finest novels written in English since the war, Ella is shown in a mood not wholly unlike Jane Austen’s Emma:
“Now she cannot sleep, she masturbates, to accompaniment of fantasies of hatred about men. Paul has vanished completely: she has lost the warm strong man of her experience, and can only remember a cynical betrayer. She suffers sex desire in a vacuum. She is acutely humiliated, thinking that this means she is dependent on men for ‘having sex’, for ‘being serviced’, for ‘being satisfied’. She uses this kind of savage phrase to humiliate herself.”
The delicate comedy of the passage, a comedy distinctly akin to Emma, lies precisely in the fact that these phrases are not ‘savage’, that they echo a lost gentility, or rather a phase of mere ‘adult frankness’ before total explicitness.
From On Difficulty (1975) by George Steiner
The question is presented here as an either/or: either cultural imperialism or indigenous cultures. This is how it nearly always is put, particularly in a political context. My belief is this obscures the real situation, is long out of date.
It is not exactly a new phenomenon, that dominant cultures oppress or suppress weaker cultures. It has happened throughout history. Empires and religions rise, absorb others, fall again, and the dominated cultures may or may not have been enriched by the contact. What is new now is the thoroughness and extent of the domination. There is not one culture in the world which has not been influenced by the technological dominance associated with Europe. European (white) culture has unified the world for better or worse. But the domination is no longer purely white, or European. When China overruns and destroys Tibet’s culture, in the name of Marxism, a Western ideology, then something else is happening.
But what has also happened, has for at least half a century, is that peoples everywhere have vigorously resisted, and often with the help of individuals and groups inside the dominating culture. This resistance, this cultural self-consciousness, is part now of how the world sees itself, and individual cultures have given birch to all kinds of writing — prose, drama, poetry, the literature of cultural identity — and this is often linked with music and film, all reacting with each other.
Michael Raeburn’s film adaptation of Doris Lessing’s iconic novel: The Grass is Singing.
Copies from the original editions of Doris Lessing’s first appearance in Russian:Муравейник – the 1956 translation of her 1953 novel The Antheap – and Марта Квест – the 1957 translation of her 1952 novel Martha Quest.
“Just the morning I left I was watching a couple of hornbills trying to eat cypress berries – they were dying of hunger – they would take the cypress berries into their beaks and let them drop, try again, and they very slowly flew off, and apparently the wards are full of dead birds, but not for long, because of course the baboons who are starving come and eat them. And it’s this, uh, feeling of irreparable damage being done ecologically which is so painful. But this is not only a black tale because – I’m sorry for the pun – I mean it’s very also hopeful because, this country is so resilient, in its’ self, its’ mood, it’s so – um – inventive and optimistic that although – I could give you a whole string of disasters and at the end I would still be optimistic simply because they are determined to make the place work.”
“And then I read an essay by one of your writers who I think is fabulous but no one ever seems to read him, Loren Eiseley, the essayist, who writes about the past of America physically and – and he always – the end of an essay with something like this, I was going up from the seashore and I think it was on Maine on a country road and he saw this girl who turned her head and he saw the flaring eyebrow ridges and the back of her head and he said my God that is a Neanderthal girl, and went to talk to her, found her a simple ordinary country girl, and realised she could have lived all her life in that community and no-one would have ever said anything – well, our poor Maureen has a funny head – um, and then she turned and walked away from him in the dusk towards a light burning, and he said to himself, I could, this scene could have happened anytime in the last two hundred thousand years – this got to me – and I thought what about all the races who might be in us and we don’t know anything about […]”
“No, you see, people always read messages and things, which I don’t intend. When I wrote that book, the journalists came and said, “Oh, well, of course it’s about the Palestine situation.” “Oh, of course it’s about genetic research.”
And I kept saying, “No, no. It’s a story. I’m a storyteller.” One of the things that sparked it off was, I was sitting in a dentist’s waiting room. And reading stuff, as– as you do. And there was a letter from a woman to some agony aunt. And the letter went like this.
It said, “I know you can’t do anything to help me, but I must tell someone or I will go mad. We have three children, and my fourth was born, this little girl. She is a little Satan. Our lives have been completely destroyed by her. She is a little devil. But sometimes at night I go into the room and I look at that pretty little face on the pillow, and I long to cuddle her. But I daren’t, because I know what would come up into my arms would be a spitting, hissing little devil.” Now, that got to me. Notice the religious language in that, which she probably wasn’t conscious of. So, I– I– I just had to write it.
You know, it is very enjoyable, writing a story. You get this idea. It takes hold of you. And then you spend day and night thinking about how to do it. And then you do it. And much later, you think, “Oh, yes. That’s an interesting question.”