Tag Archives: Doris Lessing

The Golden Notebook and Austen’s Emma

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

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Mozart, but also Coca-Cola

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 My belief is this obscures the real situation, is long out of date.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.

– See more at: http://www.pen-international.org/cultural-domination-by-doris-lessing/#sthash.thZmY0tv.dpuf

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The Grass is Singing: film

Michael Raeburn’s film adaptation of Doris Lessing’s iconic novel: The Grass is Singing.

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June 27, 2014 · 12:40 pm

Марта Квест

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



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Irreparable ecological damage

“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.”

Listen to the Doris Lessing interview with Don Swaim, October 8, 1992, RealAudio (40 min. 22 sec.) MP3 File


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Well, our poor Maureen has a funny head

“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 […]”

Listen to the Doris Lessing interview with Don Swaim, June 1, 1988, RealAudio (35 min. 02 sec.) MP3 File



“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.”


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It’s enough to make you cry

NO – Do you keep up with the news?

D. Lessing. – Yes, it’s a vital need. Sometimes I go to the newsagent and I buy all the papers

NO – You recently criticized Tony Blair in very harsh terms. Why?

D. Lessing. – Because he is not up to the job. He is a little man. Why has he taken the bait for this war. I think he is not very bright. He is a child of the hippy 60s.There was this picture of him with long hair and a banjo. It’s enough to make you cry. I do not think he ever read a book. The worst is that he loves important people. I think he must have had a problem with his dad.

NO – England should not have had to participate in the war in Iraq?

D. Lessing -. I don’t think so. We got rid of Saddam, but at what price! The same applies to the Taliban in Afghanistan. We probably know how to get rid of some countries’ dictators, but not how to manage them afterwards.  In fact, Bush and Blair do not know what they are doing. Bush is a Christian, he goes to church on Sunday, he thinks God speaks to him. These are the most dangerous individuals. His conscience is cleansed of guilt whatever he does. He will never say, “I made a mistake.” Blunder after blunder, there is not a hint of regret in his voice. And all the money being wasted …

NO – What do you think of hysteria “Harry Potter”?

D. Lessing . – I am delighted. Children starting to read again, what a miracle! I leafed through a volume. But “Harry Potter” was not really written for me, was it?

NO – What were your biggest thrills as a reader?

D. Lessing. – Twenty years ago when I read all the Russians. I also discovered Virginia Woolf, Proust and Stendhal, which I love. Reading was an escape from nightmarish Rhodesian society. The reason I so loved Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that  pre-revolutionary society in Russia was strangely like the African white-dominated society. Whites had a sentimental attitude towards the blacks, who they oppressed at the same time. My father always credited Africans with a kind of essential peasant wisdom, wrongly in my opinion. However, in “Anna Karenina”, the character Levin also believes that farmers have their own way –  primitive, mystical –  of understanding life. They were two very similar worlds. And think of the “Possessed”, of the nihilistic Dostoevsky. Everything is there, all modern terrorism.

N. O. – Vous vous tenez très au courant de l’actualité?

D. Lessing. – Oui, c’est un besoin vital. Parfois je vais chez le marchand de journaux et je les achète tous.

N. O. – Vous avez récemment critiqué Tony Blair en des termes très sévères. Pourquoi?

D. Lessing. – Parce qu’il n’est pas à la hauteur du job. C’est un petit homme. Pourquoi avoir mordu à l’hameçon de cette guerre? Je pense qu’il n’est pas très brillant. C’est un enfant des années hippies. Il y a cette photo de lui avec des cheveux longs et un banjo, c’est à pleurer. Je ne pense pas qu’il ait jamais lu un livre. Le pire, c’est qu’il est amoureux des gens importants. Je pense qu’il a dû avoir un problème avec son papa.

N. O. – L’Angleterre n’aurait pas dû participer à la guerre en Irak?

D. Lessing.- Je ne le crois pas. Nous nous sommes débarrassés de Saddam, mais à quel prix! De même pour les talibans en Afghanistan. Nous savons sans doute libérer certains pays de leur dictateur, mais pas les administrer après. En réalité, Bush et Blair ne savent pas ce qu’ils font. Bush est chrétien, il va à la messe le dimanche, il pense que Dieu lui parle. Ce sont les individus les plus dangereux. Sa conscience est lavée de toute culpabilité quoi qu’il fasse. Il ne dira jamais: «J’ai fait une erreur.» Bévue après bévue, il n’y a pas un soupçon de regret dans sa voix. Et tout l’argent qu’il gaspille…

N. O. – Que pensez-vous de l’hystérie «Harry Potter»?

D. Lessing.- J’en suis ravie. Les enfants se remettent à lire, quel miracle! J’en ai parcouru moi-même un tome. Mais «Harry Potter» n’a pas été vraiment écrit pour moi, n’est-ce pas?

N. O. – Quelles ont été vos plus grandes émotions de lectrice?

D. Lessing. – J’avais une vingtaine d’années quand j’ai lu tous les Russes. J’ai découvert aussi Virginia Woolf, Proust et Stendhal, que j’adore. Lire était un moyen de fuir la cauchemardesque société rhodésienne. Si j’ai tant aimé Tolstoï et Dostoïevski, c’est d’ailleurs que la société prérévolutionnaire, en Russie, ressemblait étrangement à la société africaine sous domination blanche. Les Blancs avaient une attitude sentimentale vis-à-vis des Noirs, qu’ils opprimaient en même temps. Mon père créditait toujours les Africains d’une sorte de sagesse paysanne essentielle, à tort selon moi. Or, dans «Anna Karénine», le personnage de Lévine pense aussi que les paysans ont une manière à eux, primitive, mystique, de comprendre la vie. Ce sont deux mondes très similaires. Et songez aux «Possédés», aux nihilistes de Dostoïevski. Tout est là, tout le terrorisme moderne.



Source : Le “Nouvel Observateur”, le 24/12/2003

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