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Q&A: Doris Lessing


(Jonathan Player/ The New York Times)

THE THEME OF fraught relations between men and women will hardly come as a surprise to readers of Doris Lessing, author of dozens of novels, short stories, and essays. For her devoted fan base, Lessing is unquestionably the greatest living writer never to win a Nobel Prize. Now 88, she belongs roughly to same generation as filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, both recently deceased, and like them, she has explored social, psychological, and sexual malaise.

Widely acclaimed as a masterpiece, her first London novel, "The Golden Notebook" (1962), was preceded by the five novels in the "Children of Violence" series based on her life in Rhodesia as the daughter of an English couple who had gone there in 1925 to farm. From "Children of Violence" on, Lessing was in the front rank of writers -- Jean Paul Sartre and Czeslaw Milosz being others -- who chronicled the allure, disappointments, and hypocrisies of the communist politics that was lingua franca for many of her contemporaries.

With "Shikasta" (1979), Lessing branched out into science fiction, occasioning the sort of condemnation from certain quarters that Bob Dylan elicited when he went electric. Science fiction -- and works of speculative fiction, like her new novel, "The Cleft" -- allows Lessing to examine the effects of climate change (here called "the Noise") on our species, along with issues of memory and oral narrative.

"The Cleft" takes up the idea that eons ago the human race consisted entirely of women ("Clefts"), who, for unknown reasons, suddenly started giving birth to boys (first called "Monsters," later "Squirts"). The advent of boys was, for the immemorial Old Shes, calamitous, and a catalyst for rapid social transformation. The ancient annals of this transformation were brought, during the reign of Nero, to a Roman senator who edited them, sometimes adding Squirt-centric commentary.

When I called Lessing in England, I said that despite the novel's description of males as "a kind of cosmic afterthought," Squirts seem to come out better than Clefts in the book.

IDEAS: Don't you like the Squirts more? Yes, they're forgetful, and they mess up their huts. But boys pretty much invent compassion. After all, it's a bunch of Squirts who rescue a hateful old She.

LESSING: That's all right. When have I disliked men? They're more interesting than the girls because they are new and adventurous.

But there's also an absolutely horrific rape in the book. Some reviewers complained the novel was very cruel in the way the girls first mutilated the Monsters. But nobody said one word about the gang rape of the Cleft.

Also, some reviewers hated words like "Squirt" and "Monster" as names for the boys.

IDEAS: But they're funny!

LESSING: I thought very funny. Afterwards I thought what a pity it couldn't have something like James Thurber cartoons to illustrate it.

IDEAS: Is this your funniest book?

LESSING: Sometimes I think what I write is funny in its quiet way.

IDEAS: Why did you make the editor of the Cleft manuscript a Roman?

LESSING: Rome is very much around at the moment, with nonstop television programs and books all the time. It's very fashionable. And I'm fascinated by Rome anyway. I feel as though I could have lived there. I probably did once. And it was not unusual for a senator to be a literary figure in those days; it would have been very easy for him to have been a kind of archivist.

There are a lot of things I could say indirectly using this Roman world that I didn't have to spell out.

IDEAS: Isn't this Roman inconsistent? He says that just because the Cleft people "had shapes like ours" doesn't mean we know anything at all about what they felt back then. But then he contemplates a sulky sexual attraction between boy and girl slaves and feels sure he knows exactly what it was like between Clefts and Squirts.

LESSING: Listen, I feel -- I'm sure I've said this before but I'll say it again -- there's a kind of problem between critics and writers. A writer falls in love with an idea and gets carried away. A critic looks at the finished product and ignores the rush of a river that went into the writing, which has nothing to do with the kind of temperate thoughts you have about it.

If you can imagine the sheer bloody pleasure of having an idea and taking it! It's one of the great pleasures in my life. My god, an idea!

IDEAS: You've written that past the age of 60, "you float away from the personal. You have received the great gift of getting older -- detachment, impersonality." Isn't it possible to get too detached?

LESSING: I can't judge. You do become more distant from the passions of your youth, thank God. How would we be able to live, if we're always in a state of turmoil?

IDEAS: Why do you think you haven't won a Nobel Prize?

LESSING: There is something hidden here. At a big evening party in Sweden, back when my Swedish publisher was alive, a little gray chap from the Nobel Committee sat down beside me and said: "You'll never win the Nobel Prize. We don't like you."

It was so graceless. What was I to say? I didn't say anything. I've never found out why they don't like me.

IDEAS: "The Cleft" has just come out here, but was published in England last winter. What have you been working on since?

LESSING: A novel called "Alfred and Emily." I turned it in last November. My idea was to abolish World War I. My parents had a very bad time in the First World War. My father was called up to fight, and had a bad breakdown. I wanted to give my parents the kind of lives they would have had if there had been no war. It gave me great pleasure to do that.

IDEAS: So it's a counter-history -- the 20th century minus World War I.

LESSING: Think about that: If there was no World War I, there would be no Russian revolution, no Hitler, no Mussolini, no Holocaust. Europe would be unbelievably wealthy.

IDEAS: We can't eliminate the possibility of other catastrophes.

LESSING: That's another book, isn't it? I just wanted to give my parents ordinary lives.

Then, in the second half, in a somewhat impressionistic way, I write about what actually happened.

IDEAS: In fact, your parents went to Africa, correct?

LESSING: In 1925. It's almost comic. They went to the Empire Exhibition in London in 1924, and saw a great advertisement for southern Rhodesia, how rich you can get in five years -- all rubbish -- and went out to southern Rhodesia to farm.

IDEAS: In "Alfred and Emily" they don't go to Africa, and don't marry each other.

LESSING: No. They know each other. They're sort of distant friends. Their lives go along in parallel.

IDEAS: Are you born in the book?

LESSING: Oh no. Not important, not important at all.

Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge. His interviews appear regularly in Ideas. E-mail him at hblume@globe.com.

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