'I have nothing in common with feminists. They never seem to think that one might enjoy men'
From feminist icon to male champion... Doris Lessing is no stranger to controversy. On the eve of the publication of her 25th book, the octogenarian puts Barbara Ellen right about men and motherhoodBarbara Ellen
Sunday September 9, 2001
The interesting thing about Doris Lessing is not that she's not a feminist, but how insistent she is that she's not a feminist. Moreover, unlike fellow novelist Fay Weldon, who seems to have effected something of a turnabout in recent years, Lessing claims never to have embraced feminism in the first place. A lapsed communist, yes ('The fools we were!'), but a feminist - never. This, despite a vague feeling, courtesy of those, like me, who read and enjoy her work, that, writing like she does (progressive, indomitable; a true female chronicler), she must be. But no, Lessing is adamant about this, still stoutly refusing to be claimed as a feminist icon whole decades after her most famous work, The Golden Notebook, was widely hailed as one of the great inflammatory emancipating texts of the 70s.
In March this year, collecting the prestigious David Cohen prize, honouring a lifetime of excellence, Lessing even went so far as to renounce today's women as 'smug, self-righteous' and far too quick to 'denigrate' men. More recently, she was at it again, causing a major media stir at the Edinburgh book festival, claiming that modern men were both 'rubbished' and 'cowed' by women. 'They can't fight back,' said Lessing. 'And it's time they did.' Well, right on, sister. 'The thing is, I haven't changed at all,' Lessing informs me unapologetically, as we share a Diet Coke in her living room. 'I'm not any kind of traitor to the cause. I've always thought the same way. It's just that, like all obsessively political people, feminists tend to fasten on to someone who they think is one of them. I am always being described as having views that I've never had in my life.'
We talk on a humid afternoon, in the first-floor living room of Lessing's London home. It is situated near West Hampstead, in what Lessing says was one of the very first commuter suburbs: 'They converted them into flats and then back into houses. They wasted space scandalously. I'm very pleased.' Her manner is brisk, autocratic, occasionally rather tart, but, when I ask Lessing if she is aware of her reputation for being intimidating, she replies: 'So I hear, but I think I'm a pussy cat!' At 81, Lessing is also as sharp as a dentist's needle. Which makes you wonder a little about her recent outbursts. She managed to get up Jeanette Winterson's nose and fuel several days of newspaper editorials. Which doesn't exactly hurt when one happens to have a new novel hitting the stands. As Lessing must know, after more than 50 years in the business, there's nothing like a bit of controversy to sell books.
Right this minute, though, she has to have her photograph taken. 'You sit there for now,' she says, indicating a low, saggy sofa next to some bookshelves. The room is a homage to bohemian counterculture chic - a wall hanging here, a wooden carving there, cat hairs everywhere (Lessing is a huge lover of felines, and owns one called Yum Yum). When the photographer is done, Lessing calls her a cab, then checks for its arrival, leaning against the window frame for support. When it's my turn to leave, we go through the same routine. 'I want to see if it's there,' she says, slightly querulously, clutching at the neckline of her dress. 'Sometimes they just sit in the street.' I only mention this because, during the long, hot afternoon, these are the only two occasions I witness Lessing acting anything like her years. She assesses her own mental age as 'about five'.
The new book, The Sweetest Dream, could best be described as an aga saga for the hippie generation. It spans decades and continents, bringing in the African Aids epidemic. It is Lessing's 25th novel. Or is it her 26th? It's hard to keep up with this most prolific of authors. As well as the novels, there's been a paper avalanche of non-fiction, poetry, opera and drama (she's a huge theatre buff). 'I don't know why I have to write,' says Lessing. 'It's just something I have to do. If I don't write for any length of time, I get very irritable. If I had to stop, I would probably start wandering the streets, telling myself stories out loud.' When I comment that she seems very driven, Lessing gives me a wry smile. 'I've worked hard all my life,' she says. 'You have to if you want to get things done. These days, there's a lot of writing talent around, but very few people seem prepared to stick at it.'
Of course, considering its size, the quality of Lessing's oeuvre was bound to vary. While, with her debut The Grass Is Singing, it's as if holy literary water is splashing into the Southern African dust and giving the characters life, you could take or leave the eco-fable Mara and Dann, or any of the titles from the gorily futuristic Canopus in Argos series. Along with The Grass Is Singing, and The Good Terrorist, my personal favourite is The Fifth Child, which tenderly tells the tale of Ben, a throwback cast adrift in the modern world. When Lessing is on this kind of form, every line feels like she is dipping her pen nib into some universal open wound. For me, The Sweetest Dream doesn't quite spark at this level, although it is hugely enjoyable and interesting in its own right.
Arguably one of the most interesting things about the new book is the author's note at the beginning, where Lessing reveals she won't be producing a third volume of autobiography, covering the 60s period, because of 'possible hurt to vulnerable people'. However, she says, this does not mean that The Sweetest Dream is 'novelised autobiography'. All of which refers to the fact that one of the book's central characters, Frances, plays 'earth mother' to a houseful of adolescent strays, just like Lessing did in the 60s, and she doesn't want the two to be confused. She is especially keen for the identities of the real-life 'strays' to be kept a secret. Is this out of courtesy? 'Not out of courtesy,' says Lessing, ever brisk. 'But these people are middle-aged, and some of them are very well known.' She considers for a moment. 'I just wouldn't want to embarrass them. I couldn't do it to them. I certainly wouldn't like it done to me.'
The big question is: why would Lessing want to spend the 60s 'mothering' a bunch of adolescents, only one of whom (her teenage son Peter) was her true responsibility? Lessing demurs when I describe Frances (and by association herself) as 'put upon'. 'You say "put upon", that's how you see it, but maybe she was enjoying it.' However, by anyone's reckoning, tending to the needs of neurotic teen hippies doesn't look like the best fun a successful 40-plus female novelist could have. 'Why not?' says Lessing, crisply. 'I don't see why one should exclude the other. Do you know who also had a house like it - Penelope Mortimer. I met her just before she died and she said that, looking back, it was the happiest time of her life, because of all this enormous family that was always changing. And, you know, it was extraordinary, a phenomenon of the time. The tail end of communism really, but then, I happen to think that the whole hippie ethos was a spin-off from communism.'
It isn't Lessing's mission to glorify the 60s. 'Swinging London?' she scoffs. 'I never saw it myself. It's swinging much more now than it ever did then. Everyone was always in bed by 10 o'clock!' Is she disheartened by the fact that young people seem so much more politically apathetic these days? 'Oh no!' she cries. 'It's better than these great passionate crusading movements. It's better than everyone running around being communists and such.' She continues more seriously: 'People always glamourise the 60s, but there were lots of victims around, people in and out of mental hospitals and so on. My personal diagnosis was that it was the influence of the wars - 60s young people were war children, that's why it was such a fraught time. Then drugs arrived, not necessarily the best thing that ever happened to this country.'
Did she indulge? 'I took pot like everyone else,' she says. 'And I inhaled, certainly. But it didn't suit me, it doesn't suit some people. I also took mescaline once. Interesting, but I wouldn't do it again. I'm too much of a coward. A friend of mine took it, and she spent a whole year seeing heads roll off shoulders, and blood everywhere. A whole year!' Lessing shudders theatrically. 'Just the thought scares me. If you take these drugs, you're not in control. And I've always needed to be in control.'
Lessing grew up on a failing farm in Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then called). Her father was a war amputee and 'a dreamer'. Her mother was an efficient woman with whom Lessing could never get on. 'I think of her a lot now,' she says. 'The trouble is, pity is such a patronising emotion, but I'm so sorry for her. She should never have left England - her idea of bliss was to have been a banker's wife in Richmond. As it was, she had the most terrible life. I often think what a good job she made of a very poor hand.'
Lessing hated Rhodesia, too. Nonconformist, and an avid reader, she grew up at odds with accepted race protocol, what was known in local terms as being a 'kaffir lover'. Marrying Frank Wisdom at 19 was her attempt to buckle down and 'behave conventionally'. 'I did conventional things rather well, actually,' she says, smiling grimly. 'This is what women did. But then I walked out. I couldn't bear it.'
The man she walked out to was Gottfried Lessing, a hard-line communist whom she'd met among Rhodesian intellectuals. Despite having a son, Peter, together, the couple were incompatible, which didn't matter, because it was a 'political marriage' to save Gottfried from being sent to an internment camp. (Lessing went on to have real love affairs, though never married again.) A buffoonish version of Gottfried appears in The Sweetest Dream, in the guise of Johnny, Frances's ex. 'Men like Johnny are historical figures now, but they were very much around back then,' says Lessing. 'When reproached for not paying alimony, or not seeing the kids, it would be: "Only the revolution counts, private matters are not important."' She laughs heartily. 'As excuses go, this was probably the most wonderful one.' Gottfried's enduring legacy was to put Lessing off communism for good: 'I was married to a 100 per cent communist and, believe me, that cured you fast!'
When she left Wisdom, Lessing also walked out on her two small children, John and Jean, a chapter of her life she loathes discussing. It certainly receives short shrift in the two volumes of her autobiography, Under My Skin and Walking in the Shade. Lessing sighs. 'The truth is,' she says, 'people are angry because I didn't go on at length about how terrible I was to walk out on my children. What I should have done is written 10 pages, saying: "Oh, how could I have done such a thing, I'm so awful and wicked?" and then they would have loved it. On the contrary, I'm very proud of myself that I had the guts to do it. I've always said that if I hadn't left that life, if I hadn't escaped from the intolerable boredom of colonial circles, I'd have cracked up, become an alcoholic. And I'm glad that I had the bloody common sense to see that.' And now Lessing shakes her head wearily. 'I don't really see the point of all this breast beating, but I know it's part of what we admire in this culture. It's the equivalent of Roman circuses.'
Lessing was reconciled with all her children eventually. Peter (a farmer) no longer lives with Lessing, but is still around. John, also a farmer, died a few years ago of a heart attack. Daughter Joan spent her career teaching poor African children. 'She's a remarkable woman, I very much admire her,' says Lessing, then clams up, clearly keen to leave the thorny subject of her children behind. Nevertheless, there are undeniable ironies here: the woman who walks out on two of her own children, then ends up earth-mothering a houseful of other people's children. And, of course, there's the fact that the very section of society who could be relied upon to support Lessing in her decision to leave her young family, the very group most likely to point out that men do the same thing all the time without censure, are the same people she has so publicly professed to deplore and despise. In a word - feminists.
You've got to hand it to the octogenarian: Lessing's opinions about the 'rubbishing of males' appear to have snagged the zeitgeist in a way that Zadie Smith could only dream of. Does she really believe that modern men get such a raw deal? 'Yes, it's become absolutely automatic,' she cries. 'If it was some polemical crusade, it might be something, but it's like young women have got 10 minutes to spare, so they may as well spend it rubbishing men. It's part of the culture now. There's an unconscious bias in our society: girls are wonderful; boys are terrible. And to be a boy, or young man, growing up, having to listen to all this, it must be painful.' Granted, nothing is assured for men anymore, but is anything assured for anybody? 'Well, no,' concedes Lessing. 'It isn't assured for women either. But I think that children respond to what is expected of them, and all boys are hearing now is that everything about them is terrible. And men, boys, whatever, are just expected to take it.'
Of course, Lessing is entitled to her opinion, just as the likes of Fay Weldon and Joan Bakewell are entitled to the same opinion whenever the topic pops up. ('Maybe we agree because we all have sons,' points out Lessing.) However, are we really to believe that Lessing has achieved all she has, lived all that life, more often than not trampling on the very bunions of convention, without a shred of feminist feeling in her being? 'Yes,' says Lessing. 'They would have liked to have me as a feminist icon, after The Golden Notebook, but I wouldn't. I always disliked it all so much.' Which is true enough - Lessing has always viewed 1962's female odyssey, The Golden Notebook, as a partial 'failure' because it was widely perceived to be a feminist tract, when that was not the intention. Indeed, it's a minor mystery as to why Lessing's remarks at Edinburgh caused such a furore, given that she has been making side-swipes at the 'sisterhood' for years.
'I have nothing in common with feminists because of their inflexibility,' she commented in 1994. 'They never seem to think that one might like men, or enjoy them.' To me, she adds: 'The problem is that certain women, polemical, highly verbalised women, only notice men when they are not behaving well. They don't notice men if they behave well, because of course, only women behave well.' All generalised tosh, of course, and I wonder why Lessing bothers to say such things, whether in fact her whole stance might be a huge joke. It isn't of course, and we just end up bickering amiably back and forth - Lessing making silly, dated references to fishes and bicycle, me bearing an increasing resemblance to Viz comic's Millie Tant.
'You're in a fortress, you know that,' Lessing rebukes me at one point, her eyes twinkling. 'Everything you say describes something that's defensive, repelling men, these wicked creatures.' They're not wicked, I grumble, they just like to think they are. And Lessing gives me one of her grim little smirks, and growls softly: 'Don't change, don't ever change.'
The interview is over. It is time for Lessing to order me a cab, and stand at the window, looking her age for only the second time that day. Before that happens, Lessing tells me excitedly about the prestigious Spanish prize she is to receive in October. 'I'm delighted,' she says. 'I love Spain. This is Spain for you - I got a letter from the king and queen, the crown prince and the mayor, congratulating me. Can you imagine Elizabeth R even noticing if somebody got a prize for literature? No, only the racehorses.' She laughs. 'I'm going to be given the prize by the crown prince, curtsy, make a speech, and have a lovely time.' I tell her I can't imagine her curtsying to anyone, even if he is a crown prince. 'We will curtsy to each other,' she replies mock-solemnly.
Lessing also kindly finds me a copy of the sequel to The Fifth Child, entitled Ben in the World. 'Poor Ben, poor, poor Ben, I do feel so sorry for him,' she says, scribbling an inscription on the inside cover. When her back is turned, I look at it eagerly. It says: 'Best wishes, Doris Lessing.' Which is a shame. I would have preferred something slightly more personal, possibly along the lines of: 'You're a screwed-up feminist bore, leave my home at once, and never return, love Doris.' When finally the cab arrives, I race down to the street, so that Doris Lessing doesn't have to tire herself out waiting for me to leave. When I look back up at the window, she has already gone.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001