About two weeks ago Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lessing, now 87, is my favorite writer—an understatement; I usually refer to her as my guru.
A few friends e-mailed or snail mailed me the stories, with surprisingly little overlap. Photos of her in front of her house surrounded by reporters, taken from various angles. There she sat on the steps, looking, as she always does, much like a bag lady, with her gray hair in a bun or braided on top, and vintage Salvation Army dresses. I especially like her shoes, not typical old lady shoes but a variation of Mary Janes. Apparently she’d just come home—one report said she’d been on a hospital visit, another that she’d been shopping; she had a bag of groceries by her side—to find a gaggle of reporters hanging about: that’s how she learned she won the Nobel. Her remarks were typically offhanded, to the effect that it’s about time, but it doesn’t mean a thing. When informed that a substantial sum of money comes with the award, she seemed to cheer up considerably. Otherwise, it was just another day in the life. She probably woke up the next morning and continued writing.
Christopher Hitchens, who I heard via podcast, wrote that the Nobel committee finally got something right. I’ve never been a big Hitchens fan, but he won me over by praising Lessing. He added, however, that she hasn’t written anything “important” in the past fifteen years, and while this is technically true, there are still some gems in her recent writing. I particularly recommend the short story The Grandmothers, in the book by the same name—pretty racy stuff, especially for an octogenarian writer. I also love the two Mara and Dann books, adventures of a sister and brother on post-disaster Earth. Whenever I think about global warming I think of these two books, the same way that when I think about The State of The World writ large I inevitably think of Lessing’s two most ambitious series, The Children of Violence, (five books) and the first two books in the ‘space fiction’ series, Shikasta and The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five. I always envisioned a film of the latter, a profound parable written fairy tale-style. As far as I know, only one of Lessing’s books was turned into a film — her first, The Grass is Singing. It’s just as well she remains largely untouched by Hollywood: these are books of ideas, interior novels, and movies by their very nature deal in surfaces. The film industry occasionally does a better job with literature than it did in the past, but I’m not sure Lessing’s would survive the translation.
By now I’ve seen her speak several times, and I’ve been up close for her to sign my books—but the first time I met her I was emotionally overwhelmed. If you’ve read my blog on my meeting with Barbra Streisand, you know I tend to fall apart in the presence of greatness. Unfortunately, when I met Doris I did not deviate from this pattern.
It was over 20 years ago: I was in San Francisco checking it out as a possible place to live, devouring every free alternative newspaper I saw—in those days there were more, and of better quality, than now—when I saw the ad. Doris was going to speak at some high-falutin’ luncheon in the Redwood Room of the Four Seasons Hotel, given by some suburban lady’s book club. It was scheduled for a week after the date of my plane ticket back to New York.
I am not a spontaneous person. I seldom rearrange plans or add to them. But when I saw the notice for Doris Lessing’s appearance, I calmly picked up the phone and called the airline, changed my ticket despite the fee, and alerted my teenage kids, as well as my employer, that I was staying in California another week. Then I called to buy a ticket for the luncheon. It was sold out. I was unconcerned: I was going, with or without a ticket. I left my name and phone number in case of a cancellation and called back twice daily to inquire about it. On the morning of the luncheon there still hadn’t been any.
I also called every bookstore in San Francisco trying to find a hardback copy of The Four Gated City, my favorite of Lessing’s books, so I could have her sign it. I had to settle for a paperback–a black mark against San Francisco: I seriously wondered if I could live in a place that did not have a hardback copy of The Four Gated City available anywhere.
On the day of the luncheon I got up and dressed appropriately; I’d had to buy stockings to wear with the one skirt in my suitcase. I was about to leave when the phone rang: there’d been a cancellation. “I know,” I said, unsurprised, and continued on my way.
When I entered the Redwood Room I looked around until I spotted Doris—wearing one of her signature dresses, her hair pulled back in a bun—and took a seat at a table next to hers (hers was, of course, full). As I sat down I glanced over at her and– I did not imagine this!– she looked into my eyes and nodded as if she’d been expecting me.
During the Q & A I asked her about her short story Report on The Threatened City, which seemed to me to be based in San Francisco, the main threat being earthquakes. She giggled. I actually made Doris Lessing giggle! She replied that the story wasn’t about a specific city, but a comment on the planetary situation, written when people were largely oblivious to the environment. She felt more optimistic now, she said, that people had woken up and were changing the way we treated our resources. Remember, this was 20 years ago. I don’t have to wonder in what direction Lessing’s views have since evolved—the Mara and Dann books show she’s reverted to her earlier pessimism.
After behaving like a perfect lady all through lunch, even amusing Doris with my question, at the last minute I blew it. As I stood on line waiting for her to sign my book, I kept telling myself, Don’t say a word, say nothing, just hand her the book and thank her, say nothing at all. And then…I have no clue what happened: the words seemed to bubble up from my inner child, intent on being heard: “This is the happiest day of my life.”
Mortifying. Doris Lessing hates being fawned over and despises cheap sentiment. “Oh, don’t exaggerate!” she scolded, scrawling her name in the flyleaf of my book. Then she looked up, and our eyes again connected. Mine were threatening tears. Hers were suddenly full of regret. I walked away, defeated.
As with the Barbra Streisand fiasco, for years I’ve told this story as a humorous anecdote — but I still cringe at my words. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Doris and I did connect. I really believe she saw in me a kindred spirit, and that she regretted having ‘scolded’ me.
Years later I met Fay Weldon, not as a starstruck groupie, but almost as an equal: she took me out to dinner after reading something I’d written about her in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. It turned out she and her husband know Doris Lessing quite well, and even live nearby. For years I’ve been planning to go to London for, as I’d title a blog about it, Tea with Doris and Fay. But years have passed and I still haven’t made it to London. I doubt it’ll ever happen. Maybe it’s for the best: I’d probably just humiliate myself again.
“The price of liberty is, more than ever, eternal vigilance, which is why I think the most valuable citizens any country can possess are the troublemakers, the public nuisances, the fighters of small, apparently unimportant battles. No government, no political party, anywhere gives a damn about the individual. That is not their business. So I believe in the ginger-groups, the temporarily associated minorities, the Don Quixotes, the takers-of-stands-on-principle, the do-gooders and the defenders of lost causes. Luckily, there are plenty of them. So–to the barricades, citizens! If we don’t fight every inch of the way, we’ll find ourselves with our numbers tattooed on our wrists yet.”
–Doris Lessing, from Going Home, 1967