This morning I started re-reading Doris Lessing‘s The Sweetest Dream. It’s one of her realistic novels (as opposed to her “space fiction”), published in 2002. The story revolves around a British household of extended family and friends during the Sixties. I wanted to read Lessing, and chose something I’ve only read once, having OD’d on my favorites as many as five times.
I would’ve written this yesterday, but I was torn between doing so or continuing with a YA novella I’ve been revising. I knew what Doris would say: she’d say it’s a stupid waste of time for writers to go on and on about other writers, that I’d be better off creating my own work, or reading someone new. I faced the same conundrum today, but decided to defy my guru.
Doris Lessing was—still is—my guru. I say this in all sincerity, not as a joke or clever wisecrack. What else do you call a person whose words you hung onto for 30+ years, memorized, absorbed? Someone whose eyes you looked through when you looked at the world? Whose perspective informed your own observations and conclusions about politics, society, human behavior? Her writing wasn’t gorgeous; she didn’t go in for fancy flourishes like Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton. Her language was plain, almost bare at times: she simply said what she had to say. What was so outstanding about Lessing’s writing was The Truth writ large. When I opened a Doris Lessing book I felt myself to be in the presence of Truth. I suppose it’s that her version of the truth is one with which I agree, though I didn’t know it until each gem made its way from her brain to mine. As she said, you can’t tell anyone anything they don’t already know. I felt less lonely when I read a Doris Lessing book. When I was at my most down and out, re-reading Shikasta or The Four-Gated City was a better cure than therapy or massage or any of the commonly prescribed stress-relievers.
Doris Lessing’s most famous, endlessly lauded book, The Golden Notebook, was far from my favorite. Critics and scholars dubbed it The Great Feminist Novel, much to Lessing’s distress. I certainly liked it, and discovered plenty of truth in it—but I’ve always thought that calling TGN her best book is like saying Stevie Wonder’s best song is I Just Called to Say I Love You. Only a simpleton would judge Stevie Wonder’s huge output of complex, meaningful music by that bit of three-minute treacle. Not that TGN is treacle—Lessing could never write that badly—but many of her books are more deserving of an audience that might not have been inclined to read them after TGN. The fact that she was annoyed almost to the point of fury when it became the standard-bearer for feminism ought to be a clue to critics that they’re on the wrong track here.
When my friend Corky turned 60 she asked friends to come to her party dressed as a woman we admired. I put on a dowdy black-and-white polyester dress from the Salvation Army, a pair of low black heels resembling Doris’s signature shoes, pulled my hair into a bun, and wore no makeup. I read aloud from Shikasta in a British accent. I was surprised at how easily I slid into her persona. The dress-up transformed me, and I’ll never forget the way I felt that night.
One of my lifelong goals was to go to London and meet Doris (I did meet her stateside; more of that later). When Kate Millett wrote about having tea with Doris Lessing, I longed to do the same. In the mid-90’s I had the good fortune to meet Fay Weldon, who called after seeing my review of her in the Bay Guardian, and took me out to dinner. She knew Doris, lived not far from her; I thought I was one step closer to London tea, now revised to “Tea With Doris and Fay.” I never made it. It’s good to have fantasies, and I ‘m not regretful. What I do regret is the way I behaved when I met Doris in San Francisco.
I was visiting the city for the first time, scoping it out as a potential place to live. I fell in love, as so many do, on the second day, and my bags were mentally packed. I was hanging out in a Mission cafe reading one of the free alternative papers when that face popped out at me: that face with not a spot of makeup over wrinkles, her steely gray hair tied severely in a bun, the eyes, as always, gazing out over great landscapes of time and space. My heart skipped a beat, and I read the caption: Doris Lessing would be speaking at a luncheon in San Francisco ten days from now, the day after my flight back East. Without a thought I left the cafe and quickly walked back to the friend’s flat at which I was staying. I phoned my son to tell him my plans had changed, that I was staying an extra week. He wasn’t home, but Gina, a housemate, took the message. (When I did go home, Gina told me she’d gone to the library after my call, where she ran into her mother and another friend of mine, and she told them I was staying longer in SF to see Doris Lessing. Gina performed for me, imitating the women’s histrionics: “Doris Lessing? Oh my god, oh my god!! She must be so excited! Overwhelmed! My God, Doris Lessing!” Perhaps Gina exaggerated, but I don’t think so.)
Meanwhile, back in SF, I called the number in the paper to buy a ticket for the event. They were sold out. No matter. The ticket seller put my name on a list in case anyone canceled. Every day twice a day for the next ten days I called to see if anyone had canceled; every day twice a day he told me they had not. No matter; I was going. Since I had no Lessing books with me, I went in search of one for her to sign. I wanted a hard cover version of my favorite, The Four-Gated City. I must’ve called every bookstore in San Francisco—and back then there were quite a few bookstores in San Francisco—but found only a paperback version. I inquired about some of her other titles in hard copy: zero. I began to reconsider my plans to move West: “I’m not sure,” I told people, “I want to live in a city where I can’t find a hardback copy of The Four-Gated City.” New Yorkers got it. In the end, I bought a paperback, though I had one at home.
I continued my endless calling for a ticket; considering my peskiness, the guy in the ticket booth was extremely tolerant. When I told him so, he said he’d had so many hysterical calls from women since Lessing’s visit was advertised that he was used to it. He assured me that my name was first on the waiting list.
The morning of the event I rose early to get ready. With or without a ticket I was going to the Four Seasons Hotel—lunch was in the majestic Redwood Room. If I didn’t get to attend the luncheon, I’d sit in the lobby and wait for her arrival, and wait for her departure as well. I’d ask her to sign my book, and perhaps talk to her. Now, I happen to have a miserable history of meeting and greeting celebrities; for someone who turns to jelly in the presence of her idols, I seem to meet a lot of them. The epitome of my repeated self-mortifications occurred when I bumped into Barbra Streisand at a HoJo in upstate New York. I was not going to blow it with Doris. I was older and wiser. I knew myself better, knew I’d have to be cautious with my words. I hadn’t yet figured out just what words I would use, but I was aiming for short, sweet, and sane. (You can smell the smoke already, can’t you? This is why I don’t write mysteries.)
That morning, as I dressed to hit the street, the phone rang. When I picked it up, my best friend the ticket man informed me someone had canceled and he had a ticket for me. Unsurprised I thanked him and finished dressing.
The Redwood Room was almost full by the time I got there. Afraid I wouldn’t get a decent seat, I looked around frantically and saw Doris at one of the big round tables up front. I needn’t have panicked: as with my ticket, a chair was waiting for me at the table next to hers. When I sat down in it I looked over at Doris; she turned towards me and our eyes immediately connected. I am not lying. Nor was I hallucinating. It was as if we knew each other.
The luncheon was sponsored by some suburban book club and, to my shock, most of the women at my table had never read a Doris Lessing book! Imagine if I hadn’t gotten in, if I, who loved and appreciated her work, couldn’t attend, while women who were apparently just eating lunch and idly passing time surrounded her. I was appalled. Still, I was civil to them, and even enjoyed chatting through a lovely meal I’ve now forgotten except for dessert—a kiwi-berry tart with whipped cream. As I scarfed it down, Doris took the podium. By now I’ve forgotten what she talked about—it was almost 30 years ago, and I’ve seen her twice more since. After her talk and a Q&A (during which I forced myself to remain seated and silent), a line formed and people took their books to be signed. I was fifth on line. I stood there repeating inwardly over and over, “Say nothing, Marcy, do not open your mouth.” As Doris signed my book I stood beside her and suddenly, entirely unbidden, these words fell out of my mouth: “This is the happiest day of my life.”
I cringed. I cringe to this day. You are no doubt cringing. Doris, however, did not cringe. She simply lifted her head, gave me a look of utter disgust and said “Oh, don’t exaggerate!” As I slunk away, tears in my eyes, I paused to turn around and saw Doris looking after me with something that seemed like regret. Knowing what I know from her writing, I like to think she regretted that we were in a situation where it was difficult to have an honest exchange. Maybe she saw the intention behind my idiotic words and regretted I hadn’t found a better way to communicate. Neither had she: we were victims of circumstance. At least, I like to think that is what she thought. For all I know she was just relieved I hadn’t tried to stab her, since I was clearly insane.
I did move to SF. It turned out that Lessing had good friends here, and, as I said, I saw her twice more. By the third time I was writing regularly for local publications, and a tiny bit more poised, so I asked her for an interview. She said “Not this time—too busy,” with no indication she recognized me (so I fervently hoped).
I knew she was getting on. I worried about it, knowing her death would mean no more words from her. I forgot that with 55 books I will have Doris Lessing to re-read for the rest of my life—after all, I’m no spring chicken myself. When a friend emailed me with news of her death two hours after the fact, I was only surprised for a second. Then I began reading all the obits, tweets and accolades, glad she was being thoroughly acknowledged. (I wonder if that would have happened without the Nobel.)
Ironically, it took me three starts many years ago before I took to Doris Lessing. It was in the early Seventies that a friend recommended A Proper Marriage, the second book in her Children of Violence bildungsroman. I couldn’t get into it. Some time later I tried again; still, no dice. The third time, however, it took; who knows why? I’m just grateful I kept trying, something I probably wouldn’t do today: once I was on Lessing’s wavelength I stayed there. It’s not a bad place to be. Thank you, Doris, for all the hours of joy and camaraderie and comfort you’ve given me. You helped get me through this life. And I’m not exaggerating.
“Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty, and vice versa.
Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.” – Doris Lessing, from the 1971 introduction to The Golden Notebook