I was very sad to hear today that Doris Lessing had died. Doris Lessing has been my favourite author since I first read Mara and Dann when I was 15. I think The Golden Notebook is probably my favourite, but I am also very keen on the Children of Violence series, The Grass is Singing and The Sweetest Dream. The two volumes of collected African short stories are also completely brilliant. I taught some of the African short stories to year 11 classes. I think that ‘Little Tembi’ and ‘No Witchcraft for Sale’ went down best – I would definitely recommend these to any English teachers. (An extract from ‘Sunrise on the Veld’ was used in a WJEC exam paper in about 2007, I think.) For me, the great thing about Lessing’s writing was its unbelievable and sometimes quite frightening psychological insight, but she was also extremely acute about the politics and ideologies of the 20th century. She was a kind of combination of George Eliot and George Orwell.
I saw Lessing speak at Warwick in my first term there in 2004. I will always remember one thing she said in reply to a question about one thing she wished she could have known when she was younger. I was going to write it up from memory, but what do you know, there is a recording of it on the Warwick website. I did have a slight panic that it might have misremembered it and have taken the completely wrong point – but no, it is just as I had remembered it – in fact, if anything, it is even better than I remembered it. Here it is, roughly typed up by me, with my emphasis in bold.
Questioner (I think this is Jeremy Treglown): The question is, is there anything, any wisdom she would like to impart to a younger generation, things she’d wished she’d known when she was in her twenties.
Lessing: The most important one is…an old person said to me when I was very young, this person said – don’t forget, this is the late 30s and 40s – what you have to remember is that it is what individuals do that is important, not a great power. What I was seeing when I looked out at the world was Hitler’s Germany was going to last for a thousand years, Mussolini’s Italy was going to last for a thousand years, the Soviet Union which was going to last for ever by definition, the British Empire, which showed no signs at that time of passing, all the European powerful empires, the racist structure: all these things seemed permanent and they’ve all gone as if they never were. If anyone had said to me aged 17, 18, 20, that all this is going to disappear as if it never was, I would have thought they were mad. So now when I look out to see certain fairly terrifying great powers, I think, hang on, how long are you going to last? And I offer this thought to you when you might be overpowered by these great structures which are much less powerful than you think they are. They are not monolithic and strong and all of one substance. They are riven, broken up in conflict and can disappear overnight, believe me.