Doris Lessing and me

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Doris Lessing, at the Cologne Lit festival in 2006. Photo: Elke Wetzig

Doris Lessing, at the Cologne Lit festival in 2006. Photo: Elke Wetzig

No, I was not Doris Lessing’s friend. I never met her, I never even attended a reading by her.

But the news of her death yesterday at the age of 94 reminded me of a time when I would have answered “Doris Lessing” if asked the name of my favorite writer.

Perhaps because of my age–and when I came of age–and where I lived when I attended college, Doris Lessing was an intellectual, political and literary icon of my late teens and early twenties.

At the center of it all one incredibly dense and difficult novel, “The Golden Notebook.”

Look, I’m not even sure I understood the book. I was young, it was the ’60s, anything was possible: what life could be–should be–were wide open yet clearly shaped by the force and focus of my generation. Specifically, by the whirlwind of political conversation, action and resistance attached to first the civil rights movement and then the Vietnam war.

It’s easy to forget how central the draft and the war being fought in southeast Asia were to the generation born following WWII. Somehow, Lessing –perhaps because of her early years as a communist and political radical, perhaps because of her remarkable capacity to not just question authority but to live her life seemingly outside of society’s rules—was someone to emulate…at least if you were a young woman who fancied herself a free thinker and iconoclastic actor. (That would be me–though I was, in actuality, neither.)

Cover artwork of the classic.

Cover artwork of the classic.

A few years after I finished The Golden Notebook–and a year after I graduated from college–I bought a one-way ticket to London and spent most of the next year hitchhiking around Europe. Marriage? Not for me. A “straight” job? No way. I was a little bit crazy and a lot confused. Lessing’s tale of a woman who has a nervous breakdown that ultimately allows her to discover her true self just plain worked  for me. I’m not sure how much of the novel I really understood back then but somehow it hit a chord and resonated for years.

Doris Lessing was an intellectual giant. Of this I am sure because what I really admired about her was her no-holds-barred honesty. She didn’t care about glamor or recognition. She seemed to care about articulating the hidden realities of our lives, the intuited but unspoken truths.

I haven’t re-read The Golden Notebook but I think I just might do so by way of final tribute to this one-of-a-kind thinker and writer.