April 11, 1996
LONDON - It is unnerving to read Doris Lessing's opinion of interviews just before meeting her.
"How many have I sat through, uninterested in the questions I am asked, which I have probably answered dozens of times before. I do this, I hope, amiably . . ."
I ask her about this and she smiles, indeed amiably: "I probably exaggerate.
But I do not understand the fascination with the private lives of well-known people. They are actually rather similar to the lives of anyone else."
She describes the frustration she felt during a 14-week worldwide tour to promote her autobiography. "I told my publishers it would be far more useful for everyone if I stayed at home, writing another book. But they wouldn't listen. This time round I stamped my little foot and said I would not move from my house and would do only one interview."
The reason for a recurrence of the ordeal is the completion of her latest novel - her first in eight years. Entitled Love, Again, it is an exploration of the nature of grief, characterised by a man who has fallen in love with a woman he has never met. Nor will he ever meet her as she died before he was born.
The idea came from a friend of hers, a man who fell in love with his great-aunt after seeing her portrait. "When someone tells you something like that, of course you smile. But it was no laughing matter. I tried to make practical remarks to him, but he wasn't going to have it. In fact committed suicide."
She herself is no stranger to suffering. A few years ago she was struck down by an inexplicable grief for several months. Trying to describe what she went through, she asks me if I have ever experienced grief - "real grief, not depression". I don't think so, I say. "Believe me, you will know about it if you do."
What prompted it? "I have never been sure. It must have gone back to my childhood. There is a whole theory that grief is cumulative and by the time you reach my age (76) a lot of people have died. What is interesting is that it expresses itself in physical pain - a heartache so appalling that you could throw yourself off a cliff to get away from it."
She starts chuckling: "What is really astonishing is that I used to take aspirins for it. Isn't that funny! Aspirins for a painful heart."
Doris Lessing is sitting at her kitchen table, peeling grapes as she talks. She lives in a tall Victorian house in a quiet pocket of north London which has views, on a clear day, to the hills of Kent. The kitchen is a merry clutter - as is the rest of the house, with books piled up the staircases and on every available surface in the sitting-room.
Her youngest son, Peter, a large, bearded man with a ready smile, makes brief appearances as we talk. He is the only one of her children who came to England when she left South Africa nearly half a century ago. Her eldest son, John, a coffee farmer in Zimbabwe, died recently and her daughter, Jean, lives in Cape Town.
Doris was born in Persia (Iran) of British parents, but grew up in the old Southern Rhodesia, where her father, Captain Alfred Tayler, went to make his fortune as a maize farmer. He failed, and Doris's mother, who could find no use for the smart clothes and visiting cards she had carefully packed, never recovered from the disappointment.
But for Doris the experience was vital. "It was an isolated farm and I could just open the door and walk out into the bush. This ability to wander about by myself was probably the most valuable thing that ever happened to me."
Didn't you become rather introverted, I ask. "Why do you say that, as if solitude is dangerous? I think it is a pity that children only rush around in gangs these days.
It's a good thing for kids to be alone: you get a sense of yourself and ideas of your own. . ."
She says she continues to cherish time spent alone: "I treasure solitude. One doesn't have to have human contact." I ask her how long she can go without seeing or talking to anyone at all. A week? "Good Lord, yes. Easily." If I spend too long with people, I can get quite hysterical for lack of solitude."
Such independence may explain why she left school - and home - at 14, in defiance of her parents. She went to work as a nursemaid and telephone operator in Salisbury (Harare), and by the age of 29 she had married and divorced twice. At 19 she had married Frank Wisdom, a civil-service employee. "I was an infant psychologically - absolutely uncooked. And don't forget that my father - my father! I mean my husband, that's an interesting slip - was 10 years older than me. It was an empty marriage."
She had her first two children with him, but left them when she joined a group organising a communist party and married one of its members, Gottfried Lessing. "That was a political marriage and didn't count. We were so unsuited that, in fact, we behaved very well towards each other.
It is easier if you have absolutely nothing in common because you know there is no point in discussing things."
In 1949 Lessing left Southern Rhodesia with her and Gottfried's son, Peter, and came to London with a few pounds in her pocket and the manuscript of her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, a study of the complex relationship between a white farmer's wife and her black servant. It was, of course, the making of her.
"I had to re-read it the other day for some reason and I couldn't see that my writing had changed all that much over the past 45 years. Although I have used different voices - if that is the word - since then."
She detests labels but has, none the less, been given several. First she was a writer on colour, then on communism, then - with her most famous book, The Golden Notebook - on feminism. "She is the kind of writer that everyone wants to claim," says Christopher Bigsby, who is Professor of Literature at the University of East Anglia and a personal friend. "But she does not want to be categorised - it is always very difficult to predict her next novel. There is nothing parochial about Doris Lessing."
Her ventures from realism into science fiction have earned her fierce criticism from some quarters. One critic called it a "plain evasion of her duty." Lessing snorts and belligerently defends her right to do whatever she likes: "There is no such thing as duty. You write something and people either like it or they don't."
But in early interviews she used to say that she thought her writing would change society. "I was indeed very young when I had this foolish idea. You don't change anything."
I ask her if Love, Again marks a return to realism. "Return from where?" she says. Well, a return from science fiction. "I've neither departed nor returned."
Lessing is direct and uncompromising in her manner. She doesn't let me get away easily with a question, constantly asking me precisely what I mean. But she is likeable, and after an awkward first quarter-of-an-hour talks enthusiastically and engagingly. By the end, she is inviting me to listen to a tape of South African birdsong. "It makes me so homesick," she says, shaking her head as she listens, entranced, to the thin piping calls of birds from the bush. "I haven't heard these sounds in decades and yet I recognise them all."
For 25 years she was not allowed back to South Africa. Declared a prohibited immigrant on political grounds, she did not return until the Eighties, seeing her younger brother, Harry, again for the first time in 30 years.
She looks back in disbelief on her phase as a communist and thinks it was just a symptom of an overriding compulsion to rebel against authority. So if the communists had been in power, would you have reacted against them?
"Yes, I have no doubt. I was always a natural rebel, until quite recently when I started to examine it and realised that it is not necessarily a good thing; eventually it just becomes a push-button habit."
Her father instilled this attitude into her, she believes. "It came from that whole generation of men who had lived through the slaughter in the trenches and had a profound contempt for the incompetence of the government. This is going to sound very far-fetched, but I think the First World War led straight into communism and fascism. I identified - as other people did - in a violently emotional way with the lonely suffering of the war. When you became a communist, it bound you to everyone who had suffered."
She says she is an over-emotional person - "born with skins too few" - but adds that she has "got better" over the years. It is a characteristic that infuses her books. Describing the despair of a character in her latest novel, she writes: "She crashed into sleep, and woke in tears." Throughout her work she is describing life at the rawest edge, almost on the verge of insanity.
The limits of sanity have always intrigued her. It occurred to her in the Sixties that people were wrongly being diagnosed as schizophrenic when in fact they were having out-of-body experiences that anyone can have if they know how. So she decided to experiment.
"By starving myself of food and sleep for a few days, I sent myself over the edge. It was a fascinating experience - these famous voices that people talk about, you really do hear them."
Here she stops to stress that she does not want anyone reading this to try it themselves. "I wouldn't have done it so light-heartedly if I had realised how terribly, terribly dangerous it is. It's not so easy to come back again.
For weeks I couldn't get rid of the symptoms I had induced - particularly this bloody voice hammering away inside me, telling me how wicked I was, how everything about me was horrible. I understood what was happening, but if you were a bit naive psychologically you could easily think that these voices were coming from outer space."
I ask her if her interest in people's mental states is linked to her espousal of Sufism, the intuitional search for knowledge comparable to Christian mysticism. "I don't want to go into that. When one talks about it, one tends to simplify things terribly and mislead people." She has been studying it for more than 30 years and, according to those who know her, it has given her contentment and serenity. "It's the most important thing in my life," she says simply and finally.
Suddenly she says: "You haven't actually said whether you like my book." I am caught off-guard, having thought that she would not welcome a view. Yes, I stutter, I do. But I think that some of the secondary men blur together it is hard to distinguish between Andrew and Benjamin and Henry, except that they are all youngish men who fall in love with the (65-year-old) heroine.
Lessing looks taken aback. That was probably the point, I say hastily. "No, it wasn't. I'm amazed you say that. Surely you don't mean Stephen as well?" I assure her that Stephen is very clear.
I am quizzed on other subjects we have covered. Do I think (as she does) that boarding school "screws you up" for life? Why am I so "on guard" against the benefits of prolonged solitude? Did I, as a child, see straight through the lies of adults? When I say no, she is surprised. "I'm sure you've just forgotten."
She tells me how she likes to strike up conversations with people
on the London Underground - "No, of course I don't tell them who I am"
- and it suddenly dawns on me why she so hates interviews: this is a woman
who likes to ask all the questions, not answer them.