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Monday, November 29, 2021

The Notebook closes

Doris Lessing’s novels gave women insights into their own lives.

Written by Shashi Deshpande |
November 28, 2013 3:10:15 am

Doris Lessing’s novels gave women insights into their own lives.

Though Doris Lessing’s wrote fifty or more books,The Golden Notebook is what she is best known for. Her first work,The Grass is Singing,though a powerful novel,never achieved the same stature,although The Golden Notebook itself never became a cult book like Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own,or Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. But when,after her death,I picked out my copy of the book,I found,thanks to my habit of writing the dates of my reading and re-reading the book,that I’d read it first in 1980 and re-read it in 1982,1987,1988,and 1992. And then stop. No more dates.

A friend had,like me,read the book with the same passion and taken down passages from the book,and we asked ourselves whether we would be able to read the book in the same way now. No,we couldn’t. It is not just because it is a difficult book. The book belonged to the time when we were trying to find our places in the literary as well as the real world,it was what helped us into finding some answers to the questions we were asking ourselves. Anna Wulf,a character in the book,admits that she is unable to write a novel “with an intellectual and moral passion strong enough to order,to create a new way of looking at life”. But in The Golden Notebook,Doris Lessing did write such a novel herself — one which enabled a lot of women to look at life in a new way.

If I no longer read the novel itself,the introduction to my copy of the book has been something I have read and quoted from often. It is a piece of writing very characteristic of her,an uncompromising and forthright statement. In spite of women claiming The Golden Notebook to be a bible of the women’s movement,Lessing unequivocally states that it is not a trumpet of the women’s liberation movement. She speaks,too,with stern annoyance against literary theorists and literary critics,to whom the work,she says,is less important than theories. She condemns the theory of commitment in writing,the “why bother about your stupid personal life when Rome is burning?” school of thought. But where Lessing was more optimistic than right was when she said,“I am so sure that everything we now take for granted is going to be utterly swept away in the next decade.”

It is now over fifty years since The Golden Notebook was written,forty years since she wrote this introduction and,in the literary world at least,much has not changed. The literary establishment is still very much a male establishment,women’s writing is still very often looked at as being exclusively for women. But for me as a writer,her words,that she assumed in this novel that the “filter which is a woman’s way of looking at life has the same validity as the filter which is a man’s way” are true and empowering,because it is only after I was able to bring this assumption into my writing that some invisible shackles fell off.

Doris Lessing got the Nobel Prize in 2007. Much emphasis was laid on the fact that she was the oldest to win the prize. But the real truth of her genius was contained in the words of the citation,that she was “the epicist of the female experience”. The Golden Notebook,in fact,brought to life all the brilliant arguments Woolf had made in A Room of One’s Own.

My copy of The Golden Notebook has her autograph pasted on the front page,one I got when she lectured at a Cambridge seminar. We were warned not to ask her questions about critics,about literary theories. She read two stories and after other writers who had sparkled,she was dull. But we realised she was not an entertainer,not,like writers are now expected to be,a performer; she was uncompromisingly herself. Her response to her having won the Nobel Prize is characteristic of her. The picture that most papers carried shows her sitting on her doorstep,an unwieldy clutch of parcels in her hand,looking as if nothing had happened. And her words were,“Oh Christ”. And then,“I suppose you want me to say something morally uplifting?”

If she didn’t oblige then,her Nobel acceptance speech contained such words. “It is our imagination that shapes us,keeps us,creates us — for good or for evil,” she said” “The story teller is deep inside us.” And again,“No doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.”

Doris Lessing was a writer above all,a story teller who brought out the truth in her work.

Deshpande is a writer

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