She will have the last word

Times Staff Writer

LONDON -- She remembers the night as if it were yesterday. Stockholm, many years ago -- an elegant dinner party at her publisher's house, everyone dressed like swans, toasts to "peace and love and the future and all that sort of thing."

Then came "that grotty little man," which is how Doris Lessing still remembers him, a member of the Nobel committee, who informed her he had sought an invitation to the party only to see her.

"He sat on the sofa, and he said, 'I came to tell you you will never win the Nobel Prize, because we don't like you.'

"Now, can you imagine the scene? My Swedish publisher was dying of embarrassment. I was dying of embarrassment, because it was so graceless and stupid. I mean, I could have died. I wished the bloody earth would swallow him, certainly, and me too."

Lessing has told that story a lot recently, since she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature earlier this month, and it is a wonder to see the hot glow of revenge in her soft, creased face, stern somehow even in merriment, framed with the escapist gray tendrils of a bun assembled too carelessly.

But repeating the story is the furthest she'll go toward self-congratulation for an honor that seems, having arrived in the same month she turned 88, to have added somewhat annoyingly to the already long list of demands on her attention.

"I'm about to be demented. Maybe I already am demented," she says, gesturing hostilely toward the phone, which brays without cease. "I'd like to make you some tea. Would you like milk and sugar? I'll be right back. And if this thing rings, throw it out of the room."

Lessing, in the course of more than 50 books, has become an "epicist of the female experience," the Nobel committee said, who "with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny."

Her books have plumbed the deep divide across which men and women talk at each other, the painful racial fractures and stultifying suburbia of colonial Africa, the earnestness and silliness of Communism, the ways in which passion still skulks in an aging woman's heart. She has been alternately adored by feminists for her acute chronicles of what it means to be intelligent and frustrated and female, and reviled by them for renouncing, not a little imperiously, much of what they hold dear.

To the consternation of many readers suckled on the densely interwoven chronicles of male-female relations, personal breakdown and artistic frustration of "The Golden Notebook," and her keenly remembered stories from a childhood in the former Rhodesia, Lessing dipped for several years into the fantastical realm of science fiction, a region she reveres for its mythic storytelling potential. Her next and possibly last book, she says, will be about the force that colored and frankly wrecked much of the century she inhabited: "an antiwar book," she says.

"Alfred and Emily" (which will be published as soon as anyone can find it, because it has been "lost in the post," Lessing explains as another example of the irritations that plague her these days) accosts head-on the cataclysmic experience of World War I.

The book is the story of her parents, and imagines how their lives might have happened, had her father not been gravely wounded and shellshocked during the war, had her mother not lost her first and true love to a torpedo attack, had they not been improbably brought together -- he a wounded soldier, she a nurse -- in a military hospital, and decided to go to Africa.

"Without World War I, there would have been no Russian Revolution, no Soviet Union, no Hitler, no Holocaust. And the corollary is that Europe would have been very well off and comfortable, instead of being frayed and frazzled. So it's a bit of a heartbreak, when you realize it," Lessing says.

The state of feminism

She is sitting on a low-slung sofa in her terraced house in north London, which has accumulated the bits and clutter of a lifetime: a work about composer Franz Schubert and a J.M. Coetzee novel on top of a stack of a dozen books on the floor; a yellowed globe cast off in one corner on the floor; paintings balanced askew on the mantelpiece; a dead cactus forlorn in front of the wood stove, next to a bright bouquet of new flowers; dismaying piles of newspapers and magazines stuffed into the sideboard and on every available surface.

Wearing a long black skirt, sturdy black walking shoes, and an embroidered vest, Lessing gives the impression of crankiness but smiles quickly when she senses she and her interlocutor have warmed to a topic. She doesn't try to offend; she simply has no time for those who puff up at nonsense. Though she abandoned two marriages and two children when she left Africa, she is forcefully protective of the third child, a recently ailing adult son who lives with her again and consumes much of her attention.

"When they start to talk about OK writers now, my name for the last four or five years is often not mentioned at all," she says. "And then we're back again to this business of men are automatically named more then women are, which is what happens all the time anyway. But then in my experience these things all the time go up and down, up and down."

Her painfully genuine transcription of the dialogue between men and women and the spiritual turbulence and dead zones inside women earned her a reputation as a feminist author and, when she lashed out at classic, 1960s-style feminism as too "women good, men bad," at least, as a nuanced chronicler of the feminine condition.

"There was a time when I had an awful lot of fans because of 'The Golden Notebook,' and my so-called feminism. They used to stand outside my gate in the summer in droves, feminists from all over America and Germany," Lessing says.

Now, though, she says, there is little need to talk about women's liberation. "They don't have to, do they? I mean, the battles have all been won, except for equal pay for equal work?

"I have noticed that what young women are doing is looking for a husband, just as if there hadn't been any so-called feminist revolution," Lessing says. "Just open the newspaper and see, what has changed? Women are free to behave as men do, and they do, but they were doing that in the '20s.

"In the '20s after World War I, there were the bright young things, they didn't burn their bras, I don't know if they had proper bras, but they were just as good as men at stuff. They danced the tango, they lost their knickers, there was this great act of rebellion and humanism, and I don't think our liberated young women have gotten very much more advanced than that. They're very sensible in all kinds of ways. But a lot of them just want a man. I also know a lot of women who don't want children, which I think is marvelous."

In taking on the evils of World War I in her new book, Lessing is not shy about extending her condemnation to the wars of a new century. She called President Bush a "worldwide calamity," claims the U.S.' trauma from the Sept. 11 attacks has been overblown and insists U.S. military power has been less than fortuitous for the rest of the world.

"Well, it's not very pleasant, is it? I mean, I don't like it, who likes it?" she says. "I think what is likely to happen is that America might fall apart. . . . The whole of California would be perfectly happy by itself, I think, and the East Coast is such a different land. . . . So if there is some kind of cataclysmic thing, like a very bad economic problem, I can see it happening. And it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. I think probably Americans will think it's bad. But I don't think the outside world will think it a bad thing."

The state of literature

Lessing has been making notes for her Nobel acceptance speech, in which she plans to explore the odd see-saw of literacy that seems to be seeping from her current world, Europe, back into her past one, Africa.

"You know, of course, that serious writers sell a fraction of what we used to sell," she says. "When I went to the States last, it was about four or five years ago, where I used to sell automatically 40 or 50 hardbacks, I was sitting in Barnes & Noble and there were queues actually going down the street, but we didn't sell any books.

"So my publisher said, 'Oh, well, it's 9/11.' Well, whether it was 9/11 or not, the fact was that whereas before I sold books well, I wasn't then." This led her to realize, she says, that people just aren't hungry for books the way they used to be, and still are, in much of the undeveloped world.

In "Alfred and Emily," Lessing spent a couple of pages listing the "must read" books of yesteryear, "the kind of books that if you were interested in books, you got." There were the childhood staples, which were "on the shelf" in her family's home: Dickens, Scott, Kipling. Then there were the books she ordered in from London, D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, "and all the English Catholics, the great ones, the Brontes and Hardy and all that lot." And at the top of the list, "the Russians"--Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov, newly translated in the 1920s and '30s, and consumed with relish and dark foreboding by just about everyone.

"This is a list of core reading that I think now would not be in existence; I think it's probably gone with the wind," she says.

"And the funny thing is, you see, there's a real irony here. While our part of the world are not terribly interested in reading, you go to the Third World, and they clamor for books. They see books as they used to be seen here, as an entrance to a new kind of education. I don't know if you've been to Africa, but it's, 'Please give me a book. Please send me a book. Please give me a leaf of paper.'

"I will talk about this in my Nobel talk: this great reverence for learning, for education, for books, seems to have left Europe and has gone somewhere else. And what will come out of that? Who knows? I don't know."

For now, she doesn't need to. She has readings ahead, the acceptance speech to write. Perhaps a nap on the sofa with her sultry black-and-white cat. In the afternoon, she will walk in Regent's Park with composer Philip Glass, an old friend.

"The roses are still out, of course, have you been this year?" she says. "Wonderful roses. And I wouldn't mind a bit of weather."

kim.murphy@latimes.com

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