There was something unsatisfactory about the New York Times’ front-page obit for Nobel literature laureate Doris Lessing, at least for me. So I went back to the archives to look for the magazine piece I wrote on her in 1982, and there I found the complex, ornery, fiercely intelligent writer I’d spent a whole day talking with. It’s long (the NYT Magazine really ran magazine-length pieces back then), so if you want to read the whole piece, click here. A few out-takes:
“I’m glad that I was not educated in literature and history and philosophy, which means that I did not have this Euro-centered thing driven into me, which I think is the single biggest hang-up Europe has got. It’s almost impossible for anyone in the West not to see the West as the God-given gift to the world.”
In retrospect, she says, ”I do not think that marriage is one of my talents. I’ve been much happier unmarried than married. I’m probably unmarriageable now. I just can’t imagine a marriage that would make sense to me. Once you’ve passed 30, I think, it becomes harder and harder for a woman to do. It’s easy when you’re a teenager; perhaps that’s the built-in mechanism for continuation of the species.”
On religion and politics:
”There are certain types of people who are political out of a kind of religious reason,” she says, digging dirt ferociously out of the kitchen table. ”I think it’s fairly common among socialists: They are, in fact, God-seekers, looking for the kingdom of God on earth. A lot of religious reformers have been like that, too. It’s the same psychological set, trying to abolish the present in favor of some better future — always taking it for granted that there is a better future. If you don’t believe in heaven, then you believe in socialism.
”I’m not a Sufi, I’m studying it,” she says. ”It takes a very long time to become one, if ever, which distinguishes us from all these cults that create instant mystics. The Sufis see the whole guru phenomenon as a degeneration, and the people who pursue gurus as unfortunates.”
On the long view:
“We’re a species under extremely heavy stress. We emerged from the last ice age 12,000 years ago, and we are shortly — say, next week or in a thousand years’ time — going back into another ice age. Compared to that threat, nuclear war is a puppy. We have lived through many ice ages, through wars and famines. Look at Barbara Tuchman’s book on the 14th century, ‘A Distant Mirror’ – nobody thought they would survive that century, but they did. We can survive anything you care to mention. We are supremely equipped to survive, to adapt and even in the long run to start thinking.”
I wasn’t a “fan” of Lessing’s. I admired her, but clearly with considerable reservations. It wasn’t until a few weeks later, with the piece edited and ready for publication, and myself back in the United States, that admiration won out. I got a panicked phone call from the New York Times: “Can you call Doris Lessing and try to talk some sense into her?”
Um, come again?
Apparently they’d wanted to send a photographer, and she’d said no. “There’s plenty of photos of me out there,” she’d said. “You can use any of them. No need to go taking another one.”
“But Mrs Lessing, we’re running this as the cover story,” they’d objected, with all the weighty consciousness of the magnitude of a New York Times Magazine cover. “And we can only do that if we have our own photo of you.”
“So don’t run it as the cover story,” she’d said. “What do I care?” And hung up.
I loved it. Most people would jump any number of hoops to be on the cover of the NYT Magazine. But Doris Lessing truly didn’t care. And even as I realized she’d done me out of a cover story as well as herself (they’d run the piece, of course, but with an old black-and-white photo and not as the lead), I started laughing out loud. And could all but hear them down the line thinking, “Christ, she’s as crazy as Lessing.”