The Worst of Doris Lessing
A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, Interviews by Doris Lessing edited by Paul Schlueter 171 pp., Alfred A. Knopf, $6.95
THE RELATIONSHIP between the writer and an academic enamored of the writer is a very dangerous one. The brashness brought on by a doctoral degree can lead scholars to believe they know the writer's soul. Paul Schlueter, a professor of English at Kean College in New Jersey, has fallen into this trap. He has published a collection of writings by his enamorata, Doris Lessing, intending, one supposes, to glorify her.
His choice is a good one, for Doris Lessing is a fascinating woman. She was born in Persia in 1919, and grew up on her father's farm in Southern Rhodesia. In 1942 she became a communist, emigrated to England and has not been allowed to return. So, she is a "prohibited immigrant" in her own land, and she is bitter about that, as she is bitter about formal education, critical response to her work (particularly to her most famous novel, The Golden Notebook, published in 1962), and, most strongly, bitter about the belief that--as she once heard a Russian writer phrase it--"Art should be willing to stand aside for life."
She has struggled against this; her friends and lovers have seen Lessing the novelist and Lessing the political woman as two different beings, and she has fought to declare herself whole.
"Bothering about your stupid personal concerns when Rome is burning" is how it tends to get itself expressed, on the level of ordinary life--and was
hard to withstand, coming from one's nearest and dearest, and from people doing everything one respected most: like, for instance, trying to fight color prejudice in South Africa.
She speaks of visiting communist countries, of the literary criticism there that gives one the alternative between either the less-valued expression of self or the honored commitment to political ideology, with no possibility of joining the two. Finally, somehow, Lessing comes to realize what Tacitus phrased two thousand years ago: "I am a man, and therefore nothing human can be foreign to me." She writes:
Nothing is personal in the sense that it is uniquely one's own. Writing about oneself, one is writing about others, since your problems, pains, pleasures, emotions--and your extraordinary and remarkable ideas--can't be yours alone.
Lessing makes the commitment to express these ideas, her own, fed by others, as a novelist. She believes that in a novel, as opposed to a film, play, or television show, the writer/artist speaks directly to the audience in words unfiltered by actors, directors or sponsors: "The novelist talks, as an individual to individuals, in a small personal voice."
In his introduction, Paul Schlueter calls this book a celebration of Doris Lessing's own small, personal voice. But by assembling a collection of Lessing's non-fiction works, he ignores her cry that it is the novel that carries her thoughts and ideas. The first essay he includes--the title essay of the collection--is the justification of the novel as a politically committed art form. Then, for the next 150 pages, he devotes himself to Lessing's non-novel writing.
This is silly--and unfair to Lessing. She is a sensitive and perceptive novelist, but a long way from being a master of the essay form. Basically, she doesn't care whether she builds logically to rounded, concise conclusions. These are personal writings, deeply-felt ideas that she puts on paper as they flow into her head. In "Preface to The Golden Notebook," the second essay, she touches on feminism, Marxism, racism, she condemns universities, blasts critical reaction to The Golden Notebook and tears apart 19th century English novelists. The result is dizzying, unsatisfying, frustrating.
Her novels, in contrast, are finely structured and carefully planned out. The Golden Notebook has as its core a short novel: "Free Women." Lessing divides this novella into five sections, using four notebooks--black, red, yellow and blue--which were kept by the core-story's central character. Lessing's experimental way of perceiving the novel pre-dates by 12 years Anthony Burgess's flirtation with Beethoven in Napoleon Symphony, which he wrote in four "movements." Because of her skill, Lessing's experiment succeeds magnificently. In the novel, she is the master of the art of influencing readers by forms as well as by words.
UNFORTUNATELY, Schlueter is not content to let Lessing's novels stand as testimony to her ability. These rambling essays, repetitive interviews and reviews that say little beyond a retelling of a book's plot deny rather than support Lessing's insights. Her seven-page essay "Allah be Praised" on The Autobiography of Malcolm X is an example: for a woman who reached maturity in an apartheid society, she has remarkably little that is new to contribute to an understanding of the emotions of the book.
The failure of this collection is not Lessing's fault. Schlueter has put these writings into an artificial context. In his introduction he explains: "Increasingly, scholars and others have asked for copies of specific pieces no longer in print or otherwise unavailable, and it is for this reason that this selection has been prepared." That is a lousy reason to put together a book.
Schlueter has published books on Doris Lessing, he has organized seminars about her, he has reviewed her writings. He must be a particularly insensitive person, for he has worked with this woman for so long, and yet has so completely missed the main point of her writing and of her life.