Sunday, November 17, 2013

Doris Lessing -- RIP

So it is going around that Doris Lessing has just passed away at the age of 94.  A life well-lived, according to those close to her.  Interestingly, the Guardian obit mentions that she had been caring for her youngest son and he passed away 3 weeks ago. I would certainly assume the two are related, perhaps feeling that she was no longer as needed -- and could thus pass away peacefully in her sleep (according to the report).  Or the stress of losing her son hastened her demise.  Or a bit of both.

Despite always being a bit sad when someone I respect dies, it is definitely worth celebrating that she had a long and productive career.  Her last full novel was Alfred and Emily, which sounds curious but perhaps not really my thing. The first half imagines her parents if there had never been WWI (and they never even meet), and then the second half walks through what their lives actually were like. Maybe just a bit of the alternative reality she did in her SF, mixed with more than a little "As Times Goes By." Anyway, surely not the best place to start with her work.  She had said that it would be her last novel and that proved to be true.  (One wonders if Alice Munro will be as true to her word...)

I really liked The Golden Notebook, which I read at university. I strongly disliked The Good Terrorist and The Fifth Child.* I vaguely remembering reading her Jane Somer novels and thinking they were pretty good. There are some others that I should have read but don't think I ever did. One of these days I will read the Martha Quest/Children of Violence series.  There is no point in saying I will add it to the TBR pile now, but if I can wrestle it down to a managable level, then perhaps I might add the Children of Violence series in 2015 or 2016.

I saw her once at a reading in Newark (probably @Rutgers-Newark) in the early 90s. I can't remember what she read -- either a short story or more likely something from The Fifth Child (which was her most recent novel at that time). I had her sign a paperback(!) copy of The Good Terrorist, but ended up disliking it so much that I eventually gave it away. I wish I had been more together at that time to either buy a new copy of The Golden Notebook or The Four-Gated City.** I was tempted to ask her a question about The Golden Notebook but perhaps wisely just let her get on with the signing.

According to Wikipedia, here are her stand-alone novels:
     The Grass is Singing (1950)
     Retreat to Innocence (1956)
R  The Golden Notebook (1962)
     Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971)
     The Summer Before the Dark (1973)
     Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
R  The Diary of a Good Neighbour (as Jane Somers, 1983)
R  If the Old Could... (as Jane Somers, 1984)
R  The Good Terrorist (1985)
R  The Fifth Child (1988)
     Love, Again (1996)
     Mara and Dann (1999)
     Ben, in the World (2000) – sequel to The Fifth Child
     The Sweetest Dream (2001)
     The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog (2005) – sequel to Mara and Dann
     The Cleft (2007)
     Alfred and Emily (2008)

The Children of Violence series is five novels long:
     Martha Quest (1952)
     A Proper Marriage (1954)
     A Ripple from the Storm (1958)
     Landlocked (1965)
     The Four-Gated City (1969)

To be completely honest, I am not sure I am that interested in anything she wrote after 1984, though I might sample some of them down the line.  I certainly will never re-read The Good Terrorist or The Fifth Child (or tackle Ben).  I simply don't recall if I read Briefing for a Descent into Hell or The Summer Before the Dark, but those would probably be highest on my agenda.  Then if I ever actually start rereading Pym, I will sneak in the two "Jane Somers" novels.  Then I would tackle The Children of Violence series and probably round it out with a rereading of The Golden Notebook.  If I can manage it, I would like to try to read The Four-Gated City close to The Golden Notebook to see which I liked the most. (Lessing apparently thought the most of The Four-Gated City and Briefing of all her novels.)  But that is sort of in the 2015/16 framework, if not in fact later than that.

I don't appear to own that much by Lessing.  Certainly less than I used to.  I have a battered copy of The Golden Notebook, a yellowed copy of Stories (most of her non-African stories) and On Cats (stories about cats naturally).  I'd definitely be in if Modern Library republished Children of Violence in one or two volumes.  What is more likely to happen is that I'll piece it back together from used bookstores (esp. if the ones in Toronto are as good as I remember).  I'm not in any particular hurry with that.

* I don't really remember much about The Fifth Child, other than I thought she was more than a little unfair at attacking the smugness of the middle class and thought she was actually sticking the knife in a bit gleefully showing how they behaved when things fell apart (and they were far from being masters of their domain the way the English middle class like to pretend they are).  And with The Good Terrorist, I found the portrayal of the "terror" cell to be far too glamourized, even though -- on the surface -- you could claim she wasn't intentionally "siding" with the leftists, and the ending was radically open and ambiguous. Still I thought she certainly gave the terror cell leaders the most compelling arguments (or perhaps only the showiest lines) and was knocking the concerns of the bourgeois neigbours. In general, it is a really tricky balance to get right when you are writing about desperadoes and people on the fringes. One is always being asked to explain how much you identify with fairly despicable characters. To this day, there are people that feel Milton made Satan too appealing in Paradise Lost.

** I just took a quick look at Bookfinder and signed copies of her work are already going for quite a bit of dosh (I guess that is what happens when you win the Nobel Prize and also are not out and about doing as many book signings in your later years.)  I was able to score a signed copy of an Adrienne Rich collection not long after her passing, but it's not looking good on the Lessing front.

No comments:

Post a Comment