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Nourished by Words

Back when my children were small, I used to run away from home now and then to write. Or I’d anxiously await a holiday or school vacation, when they’d go off to their father’s for a week or two. Once, when they were teenagers and I was desperate to finish a novel, I left them home alone while I checked into a retreat for musicians, the closest thing to a creative space I could find within driving distance. Bad mother! That’s how I judge myself now, looking back—but at the time I was too desperate to care.

Now, with the kids grown and gone from under my roof, I have no problem finding time and mental space to be linguistically productive; in fact, I just finished ghost-writing a 57,000-word book in a record-breaking six weeks. These days what I can’t seem to find time to do is read. What with all the fun to be had online, plus House reruns, baseball games, and campaign coverage, not to mention cleaning and shopping and cooking …well, we all know the litany of diversions. Or, as TS Eliot put it, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Piles of books and magazines, with scraps of paper sticking out from page ten or twelve or wherever I left off, confront me in every corner of my tiny apartment, yet I go right on ordering more. On the rare occasions when I do get time to sit down with a book, I invariably fall asleep after a few pages. I’m able to stay awake doing almost anything else—but because I get so little sleep at night, sitting perfectly still for any length of time knocks me right out.

This week, as desperate to take in words as I used to be to put them out, I ran away from home. For three days and nights I stayed in a tent/cabin at the Costonoa campgrounds on Route 1, ten miles south of the tiny village of Pescadero. It was pretty wonderful to sleep under the stars in relative comfort, with a real bed and electricity, without having to do the heavy lifting part of camping out. While there were several challenges, not the least being the freezing cold nights, this little getaway was just what I needed. After working like a dog for six weeks, churning out so much copy, I was word-depleted, I couldn’t write another one if someone held a gun to my head. I needed to take in, and, sitting below rolling hills in the morning, and afternoons at nearby beaches, I read two full books and a third one halfway through. My timing was particularly fortuitous, in that I had in my possession, unread, Doris Lessing’s last two books.

The Cleft, published last year, is a fantasy novel; it doesn’t exactly fit into Lessing’s “space fiction” genre, as she calls it, but it’s not realistic fiction either. The newer book, Alfred & Emily, is an ingenious “biography” of Lessing’s parents: in the first half, a novella, she’s created an alternate life for her mother and father, one that might have occurred had World War I not intervened; in the second half she writes of their actual lives, about which any Lessing reader already knows quite a bit. Having won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, Lessing has attracted enough interest that virgin readers are likely to pick up her latest books; since together they cover a large portion of the map that is Doris Lessing’s universe, they’re a good entry into her world.

Alfred and Emily is a great gift the author has made for herself. She writes that she is still “trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free,” referring not just to her parents’ lives, but to the war, which they never stopped telling her about. I understand what Lessing’s done here: in my last piece of long fiction I modeled the main character on myself, and gave her the dog I cannot own as well as The Man Who Got Away. Writing these gifts for myself helped calm my aching need for them; I hope Lessing’s project calmed the enormous sorrow she has always felt for her parents.

While Alfred and Emily was a great read, even more intriguing to me was The Cleft, in which Lessing imagines the human race emerging from the ocean Darwinian style, with one big exception: everyone is female, and they become impregnated by the moon, or the ocean, or any which way but the norm as we know it. A lazy, idle race, their tranquility is shattered when they begin giving birth to Monsters, i.e., male babies. Believing the male organs to be a defect, they curiously twist and turn and intentionally mutilate them. Soon they are depositing all male babies onto a Killing Rock, where huge, mighty eagles carry them off, to be, or so they assume, killed for food. Instead, the eagles deposit the baby boys on the other side of the mountain, and there an all-male society develops.

Even if you’ve never read Doris Lessing, you can surely imagine the possibilities inherent in this set-up. The two cultures develop side by side, one male, one female, until eventually they come together. Some of what transpires is similar to Lessing’s The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five, the second book in the Canopus in Argos series; ideas and themes she’s been mulling over all the decades of her life are refined and reiterated. It seems to me that these ideas better suit the current zeitgeist, with genetics in the ascendancy and “nature” trumping “nurture” in the ongoing debate over child development; Marriages came out in 1980, when nurture, particularly with regard to gender, was winning.

Both Publishers Weekly and the Washington Post gave The Cleft really dreadful reviews. For me, though, cramming in two Doris Lessing books one after the other was a delicious experience. I’ll forever associate these books with Costonoa, just as I still associate Wuthering Heights with a snow-bound country weekend, and Great Expectations with a contented, solitary Christmas Eve. This reading orgy was even more transcendental, though—Doris Lessing has been my favorite writer for some thirty years.

This morning I found myself wondering what Lessing thinks about the near-collapse of capitalism, considering that she once was a Communist; I wish she kept a blog in which she offered her perspective on breaking news. Such thoughts inevitably led me to worry, not for the first time, about her death: the woman is now eighty-eight. I’m not sure I can bear to live in a world without hope of ever again receiving new words from Doris Lessing.


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