Nov 17, 2013: For past one week, I’ve been staying aloof in my Delhi apartment, gloomily musing about the latent flames within a writer that would eventually rage and set her wings on fire, elevating her to the lofty imaginative domain of fiction. And last evening, when the news of Doris Lessing’s death reaches me, something emerges quickly, as though from under the dull mass of wingless words hovering loosely about the expanse of my desk, and rises to shine like a single tangible star against the darkening pane of the window I face. Before I am too melancholic, before I am too saddened to sing, Despadida, when I die, please leave the balcony open, my mind races to imagine a shapely, stubborn girl exactly my age, twenty nine, somewhere in London of the 60s, her radiant eyes flitting left and right and back, as she breathlessly clatters away at her typewriter, forges the rejection of an embittered mother, the early sexual abuse of her trench-torn father and the vagrant beauty of a refulgent African jungle to neatly tousled sentences of prose. DORIS LESSING: I write on a chit of paper, and pasting it on the white wall by the glass window that opens to the balcony, I sigh the name plaintively.
My introduction to Lessing was late and insinuatingly institutional. Last year, in a Women’s Rhetoric class at Fresno State in the Central Valley of California, when my English professor, who is Chinese—calm, sweetly disciplined, fucking immaculate in structuring the syllabus—asked me to write an academic paper, I arbitrarily chose to write about The Golden Notebook. I wanted to make clear to Bo Wang that this was for the first time I was setting a solid foot in academics, a watery discipline, abundant and abundantly redundant, through the esoteric and gray folds of which I craved to swim with a rather nonchalant and exhilarating flapping of fin. For a month, I dipped into the basement of the library. I sung with Sappho, I flirted with the stylish Simon de Beauvoir. With Plato, I juggled like a fluffy tennis ball as Diotima tossed me toward Socrates, Socrates back to Diotima. I embarked onto long nocturnal voyages through a thick sheaf of clamorous papers and militant theories of feminism and classical rhetoric whose salient postulates flew like musical bumblebees against the ossified inner walls of my male-sculpted mind.
Exhausted, I finally returned to my lodge, a quiet wooden house with roof shingles on Maple Street. In the rear, beyond pools of blue water under the soft shade of elms, across Shaw aflood with cars, through an assortment of vast vineyards, the hills of Sierra Nevada squatted in the distance, bald and humble, under the high blue-glaring aerial sea of the Californian sky. I reclined in my solitude. As the sprinklers went up with a faint swish and drizzled all over the grassy lawn, a sensation of a cool evening breeze wafted into my room. I entered the voluminous novel-within-novel-within-novel. The book finished me overnight, opening new boxes of thought inside my mind. I was followed by Lessing the following day, gorging Under My Skin and Memoirs of a Survivor like memoirs created out of fiction and not vice versa.
In The Golden Notebook, Lessing had left me stunned with her nimble pace and formal strides she executed so magnificently, so deftly, through the thick thickets of chaos bordering on anarchism. There were “torments of dissatisfaction and incompletion,” “stretching of self” and “the artist’s incapacity to live” as confessed early in the novel to Mother Sugar. And through my lens of Women’s Rhetoric— the only thing Bo Wang found interesting in the entirety of my muddled B grade paper—whose contours I delineated by envisaging an organic consciousness suffused with the light of larger feminist principles that seek to reconfigure such totalizing categories like woman, feminine, chastity, man, gender, vagina, penis, etc., in the predominant phallocentric discourse, and also how this reconfiguration in language means or would bring about changes in the real life which in turn would effect a general upliftment or restoration of women in history, real and representational. Anna Wulf, Lessing’s surrogate and redoubtable heroine, donned fabulously fresh hues of interpretation. I don’t understand Western music much, but many times Lessing’s paragraphs reminded me of what James Wood, writing about Keith Moon and enjambment, had said about the definition of an ideal sentence of prose: “a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but disheveled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.” And here was Anna, strong due to the denials of Lessing’s bruised childhood, confronting her friend’s cuckold husband: “You are such a pompous ass…I bet you talk about sex when you are alone with your popsy.” And there she was, the writer of Frontier of War, a Left revolutionary vanguard in Africa, acting out what she believed in.
After coming back to London, she makes it clear that her art is greater than any ideology like Marxism, and the struggle of women against men precedes the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution both in time and significance. But it’s as a literary critic, someone having such profound historical perception, I stumbled forward and fell for Anna as she wove a lasting net of admiration about my bedazzled eyes. About Naipaul’s Mr. Biswas, an Indian Picaro in post-colonial Trinidad, an artist with bad digestion, they say he is the last character in the history of realistic novel who has Victorian grandeur and grace. Anna is also entitled to such greatness merely because of the way she understands and grapples, the way T.S. Eliot has ordained, where the greatness lay and why with the waning of the tradition, without any unifying moral vision, certain things have become unachievable: “One novel in five hundred or a thousand had the quality a novel should have to make it a novel—the quality of philosophy. Most novels, if they are successful at all, are original in the sense that they report the existence of an area of society, a type of person, not yet admitted to the general literate consciousness.” In an age where the likes of Leotard have long before toppled the edifice of grand-narrative, and where commercialized literary cliques and salons of shallowness abound, fictionalized journalism is rampantly, recklessly, lauded as fiction, Lessing makes the distinction and carves a new territory of meta-fiction around Anna. The Golden Notebook is a novel about a complex novelist precariously placed on the precipice of an era in European history marked with the hazy hangover of the war that almost engulfed the continent in its entirety.
In Under My Skin, Lessing courageously confesses about the sexual torment inflicted by the one-legged father crippled in World War First: “Daddy captures his little daughter and her face is forced down in to his lap or crotch, into the unwashed smell…His great hands go onto my ribs. My screams, helpless, hysterical, desperate.” Lessing also quietly remarks: “Women often get dropped from memory, and then history.”
Despadida, Doris, I write in my dairy I rarely share with anyone, you are a part of a Kashmiri writer’s memory, despite the associations of a bad grade, beyond the confines of school… this is a decisively dismal day. I then mark the date, 17 NOVEMBER, on another chit of paper and paste it on the wall by DORIS LESSING. Outside a cold night has fallen. I open the window and the door to the balcony and come out to look at the stars.
Feroz Rather is a Contributing Editor at The Normal School and his nonfiction piece is forthcoming in The Rumpus.