Monday, November 18, 2013

Doris Lessing (October 22, 1919 - November 17, 2013)

Among the many obituaries for Doris Lessing, who died yesterday, I found the one in the Forward very interesting, "Doris Lessing and the Jews: Charting the Influences of the Beloved Nobel Prize Winner" by Benjamin Ivry. I was always interested in the many and varied Jewish characters in her novels, especially the earlier ones before she began writing tales of distopian futures and other themes from fantasy or genre literature. The Jewish presence was not surprising in novels about communist and other left-wing organizations in the mid-20th century. After all, there truly were many Jews involved in these movements. Her treatment of them was always interesting. I wrote a little about that yesterday on my other blog here: Doris Lessing.

According to Ivry's article, Lessing's fictional characters were based, she said, on real individuals she had known. He identifies many of them specifically in his article; for example: "In 'Martha Quest,' Lessing writes of Joss and Solly Cohen, a shopkeeper’s sons of a shop-owner who send the heroine books, which help her attain a 'dispassionate eye' on her country’s misfortunes: 'This detached observer, felt perhaps as a clear-lit space situated just behind the forehead, was the gift of the Cohen boys at the station.'"

Even in some of her later fiction, after she broke with the communists and Stalinists, she retained interest in Jews. According to Ivry:
From Communism’s failure, Lessing drew the conclusion: “We need to learn to watch our minds, our behavior. We need to do some rethinking. It is a time, I think, for definitions.” 
This prudent, watchful stance was further expressed in a series of futuristic dystopias, five novels grouped as “Canopus in Argos: Archives (1979–1983).” The critic Robert Alter has praised them as a “combination of fantasy and morality.” The first volume, Shikasta, is presented as a documentary account of a planet in danger. In a preface, Lessing describes her inspiration from the Old Testament, adding with understatement: “It is possible we make a mistake when we dismiss the sacred literatures of all races and nations as quaint fossils from a dead past… It is our habit to dismiss the Old Testament altogether because Jehovah, or Jahve, does not think or behave like a social worker.” Such narratives as the Tower of Babel and Sodom and Gomorrah are paralleled, albeit with the addition of spaceships and other sci fi-style paraphernalia.
 Ivry writes: "Throughout her long life, Lessing maintained a genial bonhomie towards Jews, telling the Associated Press in 2006 that when the American Jewish feminist Betty Friedan visited her in London, Lessing found her to be a 'good Jewish mother, we got on like anything.' She had a more mixed view of Allen Ginsberg and his Beat Poet pals, whom she found 'extremely likable, but this isn’t how they wanted to be seen… they weren’t as frightening and as shocking as they wanted to be. They were mostly middle-class people trying to be annoying.'”

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