Wednesday, 21 November 2007

No Less than Lessing

OK, I had to admit that I was disappointed that Doris Lessing got this year's Nobel Prize for Literature instead of Margaret Atwood, my all-time favourite feminist writer, CanLit icon and scifi-queen. Then a fellow traveller started analysing Lessing's novels in a way that contested my stubborn, predetermined views, and the subtle persuasion continued and continued until I had to get The Golden Notebook for closer inspection.

Perhaps millions of readers worldwide are now wondering whether Lessing's pioneer ideas on women's liberation are now outdated, if there is even a nugget of feminist message left that would still make sense. I would say, "yes, the world hasn't changed that much at all, the same power struggles between men and women still take place, although the settings may be different. People are still mean and evil to one another. In most cases, it makes more sense to work on friendships than heterosexual love."

Reading the recent Nobelist's works because she goddamned got the prize is a cultural-snobbish act- especially if her works haven't caught your eye otherwise. So I'm not even going to explain my reasons other than a friendly influence and a willingness to talk back.

I remember some of Lessing's novels in my parents' bookshelf in the 70s. A few summers back, I remember reading Martha Quest. It seemed surprisingly fresh to be a Bildungsroman, this is why I had positive expectations of The Golden Notebook. Would the women grow up mature and independent agents of their own lives or would their lives remain messy as ever? From a glance I could already guess that The Golden Notebook was too complex to contain a single message.

There are two main characters, Anna and Julia, who are basically the same woman seen from two angles. Anna and Julia are single mothers living in London, trying to combine writing, politics and love. All the men they see are either married or emotionally unstable. They are forced to keep tenants in their flats, mostly gay men who bring in their boyfriends. The American and the Singalese tenants are straight, Anna/Julia has an affair with both of them, but the single men treat her worse than the married ones. Most straight men are potential, ongoing or ex-lovers - the possibility of a platonic friendship doesn't quite exist, and sex is used as a political weapon - most situations boil down to the question of emotions in sexual encounters.

Lessing writes in almost see-through language - she is not brilliant in metaphors and poetic language. What I loved most in my first encounter with The Golden Notebook was the sense of political and historical time and the vivid portrayal of dreams. Anna/Julia's long involvement with the British Communist Party, and before this, the communism of her youth in Rhodesia, are themes that speak to me in another political context: how is a woman's political agency possible at the grassroots level, and to whom voluntary party work has been possible in the first place. Anna/Julia is a middle-class writer, who lives off the royalties of one successful novel. She can afford to take time off and do the typing in the party office for years. When she goes canvassing for votes in East London, she is told not to wear her better clothes - in case the local women get offended by her "posh" style. Class matters also inside a revolutionary communist party. Communist activists and other working-class elite groups have always built their own subcultures and styles, which cannot be the same as the euro-store cheap chic or ghetto sportswear without the sports. The same story could be written again, maybe in direct dialogue with Lessing's personae. I would love it to be a play.

I had interesting dreams while reading Lessing. Very rarely novels, when read in bed before crashing, seep into my dreams as effectively as Lessing's storylines did. In my dreamscape, the local communist headquarters was so pittoresque I have an urge to paint it. The green tapestries and the glass vitrines with only German original texts of Marx in them have become a kind of shrine in my mind. Lessing made me dream in the boldest lushest colours, equivalent to Wong Kar-Wai's films. I wrote many of the "Doris Lessing dreams" down the moment I woke, sometimes in the middle of the night, in a Chinese notebook, covered with golden-and-purple silk printed with dragon figures. All that seems quite precious. She has given me a gift that gives me material to work on for years.

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