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Doris Lessing and the case of the unknown author

Posted December 04, 2013 in news

Doris Lessing and the case of the unknown author


When Doris Lessing was told by reporters camped outside her London home that she had won the Nobel in 2007, she responded: “Oh Christ! This has been going on now for thirty years. One can get more excited.” Lessing had been shopping. She went into her house and deposited her bags, then emerged again to talk with reporters. She sat on the front step with her legs apart under a long denim skirt.

“I’m going to have think of nice things to say, any minute!” she grumbled. “They told me a long time ago that they didn’t like me and that I would never get it. This is at least 40 years ago … They said ‘you will never get the Nobel prize because we don’t like you’ and they sent a special official to tell me so. I mean the whole thing is so graceless and stupid. And bad manners.”

Lessing died last month at the age of 94. She was uninhibited, said the New York Times. Outspoken.

“If you don’t think of yourself as an august personage, you don’t have to behave yourself,” wrote Margaret Atwood in The Guardian. “You can still kick up your heels and push the limits, and that was what interested Doris Lessing, always. Her celebrated experiment with a pseudonym as a demonstration of the hurdles facing unknown writers being just one example. (Her ‘Jane Somers’ novels were reviewed as pale imitations of Doris Lessing, which must have been a little daunting for her.)”

The Jane Somers novels – The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could … -were published in 1983 and 1984 . They were then re-packaged as The Diaries of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing.

“I wanted to cheer up young writers, who often have such a hard time of it, by illustrating that certain attitudes and processes they have to submit to are mechanical, and have nothing to do with them personally, or with their kind of degree of talent,” wrote Lessing in the preface.

She had other motivations too – she wanted to be reviewed “on merit, as a new writer, without the benefit of a ‘name’; to get free of that cage of associations and labels that every established writer has to learn to live inside”.

Lessing confessed that her third motivation was “faintly malicious”. Some reviewers “hated” her Canopus series of science fiction novels and wanted her to return to realism “preferably The Golden Notebook over again. They were sent The Diary of a Good Neighbour but not one recognised me.”

Some readers did recognise Lessing’s voice, however: the publisher Michael Joseph; Bob Gottlieb of Knopf in New York; and her publisher in France. Jonathan Cape and Granada, Lessing’s publishers in Britain, turned it down: Granada because it was “too depressing”.

“I saw the readers’ reports and was reminded of how patronised and put-down new writers are,” said Lessing.

In July 2013 – four months before Lessing’s death – the US writer James Lasdun confessed in The New Yorker that he had been responsible for one of the dismissive assessments of the first Jane Somers novel. He was 23, an aspiring writer and an in-house reader at Cape. “I don’t remember anything about the book itself except that I felt completely unrepentant about not recommending it,” he wrote. “Cape did, in fact, publish plenty of first novels by genuinely unknown writers, and as far as I was concerned the only reason they didn’t go for this one was that it wasn’t good enough. ‘Good’ for me at that time meant tight and clever and stylistically showy. The idea that failing to see the merit of The Diary of a Good Neighbour might have been a reflection of my own limitations rather than the book’s had no resonance for me at all. My mechanism of judgment was as ruthless as it was narrow.”

We don’t see what we are not able to see. As it happens, that is one of the themes of The Diary of a Good Neighbour. Jane Somers is the childless, recently widowed assistant editor of a fashionable women’s magazine. The death of her husband, and then of her mother from cancer confronts her with her limitations. She had not known how to be with them in their illness; had not wanted to witness their suffering; had failed them. Jane – or Janna as she prefers to be known - goes on to befriend Maudie: a poor, elderly, friendless neighbour. The diaries describe Janna and Maudie’s meetings. Poverty, deprivation, sickness and Maudie’s death are described unflinchingly. But the novel is also about love; how the two women were changed by their encounters.

The book was respectfully reviewed in the US, where it sold 2800 copies. The reception in Britain was more lukewarm – 1600 copies sold. Curiously, no one in Britain tried to find Jane Somers, who was described on the dust jacket as a “well-known woman journalist”. (“Some potential reviewers, male, were put off by it,” writes Lessing.)

The sequel If Only the Old Could … fared less well. Jane Somers describes her meetings, over the course of a spring and summer, with a married doctor. Lessing again: “Predictably, people who had liked the first book were disappointed by the second. And vice versa.”

Both novels explore the initiations and challenges of middle age, and describe the cramped, limited lives of the old and friendless. They ask questions about love; how it might be nurtured (or not) and the demands it makes of us. The novels do not end happily, but they are not depressing; Jane Somers grows up.

Writing in the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley said the hoax actually revealed that the literary establishment was doing its job. The books were published and reviewed after all. He accused Lessing of base motives: “Were it not for her unsullied reputation for high solemnity and ideological rectitude, it would look for all the world as if the woman were staging a publicity stunt.”

But in The New Yorker, James Lasdun had a different view. He confessed that his memories of his patronising reader’s report for Cape had kept him away from Lessing for 30 years. But earlier this year, he finally read The Golden Notebook.

He wrote: “I massively regret that I didn’t read it when I was in my twenties. Even if it hadn’t helped solve the problems of my intractable novel, it would have shown me things – about life as well as writing – that I could have made much more use of at that formative age (to be crudely utilitarian about it) than I can now. On the other hand, it’s a thrill to be reminded that there are still books this grand and powerful and waiting to be read.

“I’ve ordered the Jane Somers novels, and I await them with only slightly queasy eagerness. There’s a line in Lessing’s introduction to The Golden Notebook that seems to have been written expressly for me: ‘Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty’.’’

Well said.


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