Barbara Kingsolver: Sitting Down with Doris
When I learned Doris Lessing had died, I went to my bookcase and stood looking at the four-foot-wide swath of insight she embedded in the story of my life. Then I began pulling out books, starting with her recent volumes -- dystopian fiction, autobiography -- and then moving back through hardcover novels I bought in the '90s, the cheap paperbacks I could afford before that, and finally the Children of Violence novels in a two-volume set that I found in my teens at a yard sale. The provenance of those books, in a place where old Elvis records and Reader's Digest condensed books were the gold standard of yard sales, I believe to have been a miracle. Arguably, it has made me the writer I am.
Why? Because those novels found me. Me, the restless, angry teenager living in a racially segregated southern town where women were born with their life-scripts already written. I was pulled nose-first into the household of a girl in Rhodesia who choked on dread while watching her mother fold laundry, whose skin prickled at the way white men spoke to black men, who was drawn toward proper marriage but ran for her life. The African heat and mealie fields were rendered with a verbal photo-realism that keeps them etched on my brain forty years later. Doris Lessing gave me to understand that a big world lay beyond my little town, but that the same laws of heart and blood applied to people everywhere. I felt no less angry knowing this, but more satisfactorily propelled. In college I found The Golden Notebook and once again Lessing made me feel deeply understood, then snapped on the wide angle lens. I thought to myself, a novel can do that!
I followed her words, wherever they went. As I began writing myself, I devoured volumes of her short stories, understanding with awe and despair that economy is the soul of craft. She stretched me across genres and broke down my lifelong resistance to anything with a title like Canopus In Argos. Poetry, nonfiction, biography: all of it was exquisitely crafted, and fearless. This writer did not flout convention, she ignored it, remaking the rules on motherhood, marriage, politics. Her characters might be socialists, or cynics, or philanderers, or mothers who couldn't love their children. Lessing was not advocating, she was revealing truth, as a good novelist will, but gathering material from territories that terrify most writers, lest the very mention be taken for advocacy.
Doris Lessing was called a "political" writer, whatever that means, but she didn't see herself that way. She was devoted to original, unsettling ideas and subversive constructions. Her short stories are models of emotional restraint and thematic extravagance. One of my favorites, "Through the Tunnel," is a seven-page marvel about a boy who nearly kills himself trying to swim through an underwater cave. It's about everything: fear and conquest, child and man, white skin and dark, motherhood, protectiveness, freedom, death, guilt, post-colonial history. I carried that boy with me for decades until he germinated in radically reinvented form as the protagonist of one of my novels, my homage to the greatest writer I know.
At some point in the '90s I collected the nerve to write to Ms. Lessing, and after a brief correspondence we arranged to meet at her flat one afternoon when I was in London. My husband and I urged her not to go to any trouble; she did not. Our chat amounted to my gushing, with a clear understanding that she'd be relieved when we left and let her get back to work. She spent most of our visit discussing her worry over a cat with my husband, who seems to attract confidences of this nature. They peered at the cat, which had hidden under a chair some days ago and refused to come out. I sat on Doris's couch, which was much like my couch at home (only older), and studied the books on her shelves, also a lot like those I had at home. I wondered what I had come here for. But I left with a sense of satisfaction that I understand better now. All I could ever want to learn from Doris Lessing was in her work. It was good to know she was human, with no access to any higher magic than I knew myself, just plank bookshelves and an old couch and a desk where she would rather be thinking about more interesting things than being admired.
In the days since her death, the airwaves keep playing the famous video clip I would call "Doris Herself." Coming home from her grocery shopping, she gets out of the taxi and is startled by a crowd of photographers and journalists on her doorstep.
"You've won the Nobel Prize," they all shout.
Doris replies, "Oh, Christ."
She flops down on her stoop among her shopping bags, her wavy gray hair unraveling from its bun, and gives them their sound bite, which amounts to: "Well, what do you know, now I've won all the prizes."
This is a "get," in journalist speak. They were thrilled, no doubt, to capture Doris in unglamorous countenance. She did not say, "Oh goody, you love me," or "Surely I don't deserve this!" It's about as rare as a talking horse: a woman who truly doesn't give a hoot what she looks like on camera, who feels no compunction to be perky or grateful or ingratiating to the press. I'm unsettled by this image that's gone viral, wondering what intrigues the voyeurs. Are they mocking, admiring, or just astonished by a woman who insists on being herself, no matter who's watching?
Once, years ago, I had the amazing luck of publishing a book just after a Doris Lessing release, so that my book tour followed in her wake. Quite a few journalists were fresh from their audience with Ms. Lessing when they interviewed me, and they looked as if they'd been slapped. Wide-eyed and careful, they asked thoughtful, original questions, and several of them had even read my book. I'm told that Ms. Lessing did not suffer fools gladly; if asked a dumb question, she would identify it as such, period. When it comes to packaging a literary ocean of wisdom into the thimble of a sound bite, let me tell you, they are nearly all dumb questions. In the domain of the author interview, I believe these journalists had just had their first look at full-frontal honesty. If the fairies give me three wishes, I thought, one of them will be to follow Doris Lessing around on every book tour of my life. But now I wonder, why be a camp-follower of truth? Why not pound in my own stakes?
It's harder than it sounds. A crucial task of the modern writer is to know like a catechism the differences between "fame" and "success." In some professions those might be the same; in mine, as I see it, they are opposite. To find success, a writer need not just love solitude, the writer needs to marry it. To become immersed in text, holding hundreds of pages in mind at once, refining and connecting all those sentences in a network as intricate as living capillaries. To abstain from judgment, forgetting oneself completely, entering and embracing the invented life. The personal goal is invisibility. The abstract reward is immortality. By contrast, fame demands a love of crowds and attention, a fluency in snappy one-liners, tolerance of mind-numbing repetition, a yen for absorbing limelight, and a whole lot of interest in hair and makeup. When I give myself over to reading, what I want to find in that hallowed place is not the trappings of fame, but a writer's success. It was the very soul of Doris Lessing to know the difference.
As I pulled her books from my shelf I was shocked by the cheesy jackets on some of those '70s era paperbacks. The Summer Before the Dark promised "an adult odyssey into the perils of freedom." On The Habit of Loving, a collection of some of the most mature, restrained short stories I've ever read, the jacket art suggested prurient fairy tales: a naked woman with flowers in her hair kneeling in a discreet pin-up pose, reaching into a forest. I can just see Doris pulling that one out of the envelope, muttering "Oh, Christ."
I've reread those stories so many times that the book's binding is broken, and the jacket I've just described literally fell off. I happily threw it in the trash, and found a good chair where I could do what I needed to do right then, and will go on wanting to do. I sat down with Doris.