On hearing of the death of Doris Lessing

The first thing I remember reading about Doris Lessing was that she had been sadder about the death of her cats than at the death of some people. I suppose I should have been shocked, but I was a teenager at the time, suffering the fallout of an unpleasant divorce (my parents’, not mine; I was never, ever, ever going to get married), and Lessing’s sentiments made perfect sense to me. I began to read her novels, starting with The Grass is Singing and Martha Quest. Lessing wrote about the awkward, angry, uncompromising child I was at the time. I was too well-behaved to be Cathy, too angry to be Lizzy Bennet, too anti-marriage to be Jane Eyre, but in Lessing’s novels, I recognized myself, and from then on, Doris Lessing was mine. I was outraged when my mother appropriated her on the grounds of their shared African past; more so as I began to read more widely and realized that a whole generation of women (one I’d been born too late to join) regarded her as theirs too. But Lessing resisted being owned by any of us. She was her own writer entirely, and winning the Nobel prize for literature was simply another accolade that would take up time and energy in a way that was out of her control.

I went to see her at the Edinburgh Book Festival every year. Not for Doris Lessing the bright, welcoming smiles of an author grateful for an audience, courting the media. She wrote, and if we wanted to read, then we were welcome. It wasn’t hostility or arrogance; it was a mind unconcerned with trivialities. She wrote so brilliantly that she had that luxury. When I joined the signing queue after her events, I always wanted to say something that would tell her how deeply I read her work, how much it meant to me. But I never found those words, and now she is dead.

She did not seek to define the world but to examine it. Her characters live and breathe without courting the love and admiration of her readers, but, like their creator, attract it nonetheless. Too often, I read to be entertained, to resign responsibility for a space of time. Doris Lessings’ death reminds me to make the space for active, challenging reading too. The last time I heard her speak, she gave a characteristically acerbic, fascinating talk. I saw her afterwards, walking slowly alongside her companion, and I thought, now is my moment to say something. But as I approached, she looked so tired. So tired. She had exhausted herself in saying what she had to say to me; nothing I could have said would have been as important to her, at that moment, as a place to sit down and recover. And so, even though I had suddenly understood that she would not be with us forever, I turned aside and said nothing.

Thank you for your angry, questioning, impatient women, Doris Lessing.  They’re out here with your readers; you can truly rest in peace.