You’d be forgiven if upon watching Doris Lessing settle into her armchair and begin reading to the audience at the Southbank Centre Tuesday night, you were reminded of your grandmother tucking you in with a bedtime story. If, that is, your grandmother was the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. And the story she was telling you effectively imagined away your existence.
But incongruity seemed the theme for the evening. And so when the 88-year-old Lessing, whom writer and critic Hermione Lee described in her introduction as “alarming, radical and strange”, started reading an excerpt from her forthcoming novel, Alfred and Emily, the audience should hardly have been surprised to learn that the novel’s first half is based on the notion that World War I never occurred; that her parents, the eponymous Alfred and Emily, never married; that they went on to much more fulfilling and happy lives apart from each other – in short, that Lessing herself was never born. The second half, in contrast, describes the more painful reality, the legacy of which, Lessing indicated, she had been burdened for much of her life (but which, one supposes, made her the writer she is).
The premise is perhaps an unsettling one, but then, Lessing’s been unsettling people with her writing since well before Londonist was a glimmer in Mama Blogosphere’s eye. Indeed, Lessing seems to relish the role, and she elicited frequent laughs from the Southbank Centre audience when playing the contrarian. When asked to comment on the Nobel Prize committee’s description of her as an “epicist of the female experience”, she replied, “They had to say something, you know.” Dismissing claims that she is a feminist icon and that The Golden Notebook is a major work in feminist literature, she asked, “Why should I care about that?”
Lessing seemed to have few qualms even in criticising the rationale behind her appearance at the event. Echoing several of the points made in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she warned that the Cult of Personality, with its attendant book tours and media interviews, has created a hostile environment for new writers. Her plea that writers be given the space in which to write didn’t sound too far off from that made by Virginia Woolf nearly 80 years ago – appropriate given that Woolf biographer Hermione Lee was Lessing’s interviewer. The circumstances may have changed, the conditions equalised, but the problem, to Lessing’s mind, still exists. (We took this advice to heart and played hooky from Londonist Towers today to stay home to write – shhhh!)
Lessing has a point, and she makes it beautifully. This was her first public appearance since winning the Nobel Prize, and we don’t know whether we can expect many more appearances with the publication of Alfred and Emily in May, but if you have the opportunity to see her, take it. The lengthy applause at the Southbank Centre Tuesday night suggested that the audience was happy it had done so.
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