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‘A Radical Imagination’ – Doris Lessing in the Spectator

18 November 2013

1:34 PM

18 November 2013

1:34 PM

Doris Lessing’s obituaries, as much as her writings, bear witness  to the great turbulences of the twentieth century. How many of us spent our childhood in two countries which have both since changed their names? But ‘exotic’ was the last word Lessing would have used to describe herself: ‘I am 85, an Englishwoman (with Scottish and Irish tinctures) living in London‘, she insisted in one tart correspondence in our letters page.

Though happy to pose as a mere correspondent several times over the course of forty years (oh, to crack her username at CoffeeHouse comments!), the Nobel winner was also a regular Spectator contributor. Exploring her archive left me queasy about daring to critique her, even after death: she famously used our pages to describe her unauthorised biographer, Carole Klein as ‘a happy chipmunk that has just found a stash of hallucinogenic mushrooms’, before listing a litany of factual errors. (I suppose it’s not difficult to fact check your own life.)

But Lessing’s greatest passion at The Spectator was for travel writing. Her contributions in our Archives reveal the clipped realism of her literary prose replicated in a direct, even staccato reviewing style. Even the most fantastical of tales of foreign lands were subject to this cool assessment – consider, for example her review of Tahir Shah’s Trail of Feathers, a journey into the Peruvian jungle in search of men who fly:

‘Outsize characters abound. Sven from Bratislava, who had done seven years in a high-security prison, was walking around the world in the name of peace and poetry, pursued by a Parisienne in search of a father for her children. She was armed with a smelly llama foetus, which was an aphrodisiac and also good for hangovers.’

Lessing isn’t detached from the romance of her subject matter. In the section on flight, there’s a glimpse of her radical imagination:  ‘hundreds of attempts at flight have been made everywhere in the world. What is odd is not that we flew when we did but that it took so long’. But her simple style makes it clear that she’s a reviewer with a cool head.

This isn’t always the case. In Lessing’s rave over Robert Irwin’s book on the Alhambra, there are hints of the self-indulgent orientalism which inspired her visit to Mujahedeen troops in Afghanistan in 1986, to report for American magazines. As Philip Hensher notes in his 2007 tribute, which we have republished today, Lessing’s The Golden Notebook ‘starts from the insight that the lives of women are intimately connected to the accounts of themselves they are permitted to give’. So her paeans of praise for the heroic Taliban warrior (male, unsurprisingly – she never found any of the female holy warriors she’d told her editor she’d interview) were a singularly degrading spectacle. (‘In Pakistan the extremes of Islam are softened. . . . The punisher must use a padded whip…’)

But Lessing’s trial periods as the literary Angelina Jolie of her generation were few and far between – for most of her life, she concentrated her energies on producing literature of astonishing focus and clarity. And that energy was undimmed to the end: at 85 she was writing a Spectator Diary about the trials of four hour coach journeys in Italy. It was worth it, to get to Mantua, and find Bacchus wandering the streets.

Spectator reviewers like Bel Mooney, Mary Hope and Allan Massie had championed her throughout her career. Peter Ackroyd even attempted to like her poorly received experiments with science fiction. Hensher’s earlier expert review of The Sweetest Dream is a must-read for anyone close-reading Lessing’s prose (Its cadences are punchy, even if the clauses tend to multiply — ‘she felt x, but not quite x, but rather y, as if y no longer did for her, or ever really had’). And as Hensher notes, it is a mistake to let the strength of Lessing’s ideas persuade us that her works are merely ‘contributions to a debate, and neglect what is deepest in her, her ways of saying it’. She was a great prose stylist, and it was a privilege for The Spectator to publish her.

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