Doris Lessing, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, has died, at the age of 94.
I know that I want to write about what Lessing’s writing has meant to me, and I want to do it here, but I hardly know where to begin. In some ways this post is much more personal to me than any of the “personal” writing I post in this space.
I never was assigned any of Lessing’s writing as a student, not even in graduate school. I never studied her writing in a course. I encountered Lessing because a professor suggested that given my interests The Golden Notebook would blow my mind. And so I checked a copy out of the library, and I vividly recall reading it at 19 years old, in the top bunk in my dorm room, blowing off the work I had to do for my other courses (I wasn’t an English major yet), and just feeling… feeling like I had never experienced anything like that book. I felt inspired, and “seen,” and excited, and fascinated. My mind was, indeed, blown.
For a long time (far longer than I should admit), The Golden Notebook was the only thing by Lessing that I’d read, although I reread it compulsively. And for a long time (far longer than I should admit), I didn’t really dig deeply into what that novel really had to say, but instead I picked out the parts with which I identified (and let’s note: I was identifying with a book with an ultimately unlikable protagonist who is going through a mental breakdown) and the parts that expressed my own confusion, anger, frustration, and inarticulate feminism. But it was an important book to me, and I grew up with it.
Only later did I begin to study it, first in putting it on my list for my Ph.D. comprehensive exam, and second, once I had a tenure-track position, teaching the novel. And then I began reading Lessing’s other works and teaching them and to learn more about Lessing herself.
I began to love Lessing for her antagonism to critics and her refusal to do what readers wanted or expected her to do. I began to see Lessing as an author that was radically reinventing the genre of the novel, even as she resisted many of the conventions of postmodern narrative experimentation. I discovered that Lessing’s novels, as I reread them, grew and changed with me, that I understood them in new ways as I accumulated more personal and intellectual experiences. Not all books do that. Not even all books that people describe as “literature” do that.
So I feel profoundly sad today, even though I recognize that Lessing lived a long life and that this was her time. And it’s a loss for which I should have been ready, for her health has been in steady decline.
Of course, I was not ready, am not ready. Perhaps I will spend the afternoon rereading The Golden Notebook.