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Table ronde: Doris Lessing Introduction

Anne-Laure Brevet
p. 89-92

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1After Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize on December 10th, 2007, a round table was held on May, 16th, 2008, on the occasion of the Société des Anglicistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur’s 48th annual congress in Orléans University, under the aegis of the Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines headed by Christine Reynier. This collection of short essays on Doris Lessing aims at recapturing the spontaneity of the talks given by the contributors, in the following order: Virginia Tiger (Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey) as the keynote speaker, François Gallix (Paris- Sorbonne), David Waterman (Université de La Rochelle), Catherine Bernard (Paris VII), and Anne-Laure Brevet (Université de Bretagne Occidentale), organizer of the meeting in collaboration with Aude Ferrand (Université de Bretagne Occidentale).

  • 1 The Golden Notebook was published two years after DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was eventua (...)

2Doris Lessing’s astoundingly large record of yearly publications started when she left Southern Rhodesia to go to London and have her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, published in 1950—a masterpiece which immediately made her rise to fame. Among her most famous works ranges The Golden Notebook (1962), a multiple-layered experimental novel in diary form, using various genres and speech types to capture the tormented thoughts of a free woman writer. It was disclosing the most intimate aspects of womanhood which were still thought to be improper topics at the time1. Lessing has been labelled a feminist and put in this category from then on, keeping this reputation up to now because of her obvious emphasis on the female character.

  • 2 In the famous essay entitled “A Small Personal Voice” (1957), Doris Lessing asserted that “literatu (...)

3As Vi rginia Tiger pointed out, the Swedish Academy who awarded her the Nobel Prize have “limit[ed] her work to a single perspective”, when defining her as “the epicist of female experience”. Similarly, the account of her years as an activist in the Communist Party immediately had her pigeonholed as a communist writer. Even though it is true she was—and still is—politically committed and has made her “small personal voice”2be heard over years, she has always resented classifications and made a point of undermining them by taking the opposite standpoint on every possible occasion—with the result of discouraging her devotees and infuriating her detractors. Virginia Tiger explains that not only did the Nobel Prize fix her reputation, but some journalists tried to tarnish it as well.

4As a controversial, subversive, “provocative” or “politically incorrect” writer, in François Gallix’s words, she tried various literary genres, some of which have been regarded as low standard by the literary establishment. Yet, the undeniable humanist message conveyed by Lessing’s works was at last acknowledged when she was awarded the Nobel Prize. Among the very recent texts François Gallix chose to deal with in his contribution, Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize reception speech was particularly focused on, as “it seem[ed] to encapsulate the spirit of most of her forty-two books of fiction”. Not only is it written with great mastery but it also presents itself as “a model of humanism”. As a matter of fact, Lessing went deeper into the study of human—and not only female—identity when writing in the style of what she calls space fiction (Briefing for a Descent into Hell, 1972; The Memoirs of a Survivor, 1976; the Canopus in Argos series, 1979–1983).

The novels belonging to this phase in Lessing’s artistic production appear to be novelistic tours de force, combining the opposite genres of the fable and naturalism, and bordering on surrealism. David Waterman explains that Lessing’s space fiction points at the way identity can be defined in spatial and geographic terms and consequently creates “the division into competitive and predatory groups” leading to a form of social illness. Lessing aims at showing that this herd mentality is rooted in the social game everyone has to play to find one’s bearings in reality, which is a collective construct. The only way to achieve a collective identity of a kind which is neither war-like nor threateningly imperialistic is to find a space outside the dominant ideology, outside what David Waterman calls “the status quo” or “common sense.” This space should be universal like for instance the ideal city, the New Jerusalem described in Saint John’s Book of Revelation (1234).

  • 3 In the famous essay entitled “A Small Personal Voice” (1957), Doris Lessing asserted that “literatu (...)

5Another challenging narrative strategy in Doris Lessing’s novels is the constant commixture of autobiography, Bildungsroman and metafiction. For example, The Children of Violence series as autobiographical novels retrace the story of a self-conscious character, Martha Quest, who, as the mirror image of the writer in reverse, is “turned inside out like a glove” (Lessing 1990, 576) into an identity-seeking reader. In the last volume of the series, The Four-Gated City (1969), the end of Martha’s quest for the self eventually acquires a humanistic dimension because it is meant to reflect the experience of the post-war generation. The four-fold symbolical structure of the novel—also recalling that of The Golden Notebookwith each of its four parts including four chapters and an additional Appendix projecting into the ungraspable future of year 2000, can be read as an architectural construct, a means for moral and psychological edification, an architecture of the soul3.

  • 4 Doris Lessing, Under my Skin (vol. 1), London: Harper Collins, 1994. Walking in the Shade (vol. 2), (...)
  • 5 For example, Doris Lessing married a communist German refugee during the war in order to protect hi (...)

6If (self-)reconstruction has to be achieved with words and ideas, it is meant to counteract the effect of History, which is to provide the starting point for (self-) division, collective events affecting the personal sphere. As Lessing recounted in the two volumes of her autobiography4, the First World War had an impact on her parents’ private lives, whilst the Second World War had also direct consequences on her own, as it did on many people’s lives back then5.

  • 6 Decisively, the idea of cleft can be understood in the Freudian sense of Spaltung, or the splitting (...)

7Catherine Bernard showed that the various selves and guises of Lessing’s fictionalized self appear in her autobiography as they originate in Lessing’s capacity to dissociate from her character—who she was at the time—and her narrator self, thus construing herself as “the persona of the all-knowing historical subject […] who knew from the start that communism was a trap”. So one recurrent feature to be found in her works is the connection between autobiography and metafiction, according to Catherine Bernard, initiated in “a lasting discrepancy that cleaves the subject”. This cleavage may be the source of Doris Lessing’s creative drive, as the various meanings of The Cleft (2007), her recent controversial novel, suggest6.

8At the end of the round table there was a short conclusion when all the participants agreed on the diversity of Doris Lessing’s literary output. Virginia Tiger mentioned the existence of the Doris Lessing Society and insisted on the fact that students and academics should contribute to the study of Doris Lessing’s works.

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Bibliographie

The Holy Bible, King James Version (1611), Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Lessing, Doris, The Four-Gated City (1969), (Children of Violence, vol. 5), London: Collins (Paladin), 1990.

Lessing, Doris, Under my Skin (vol. 1), London: Harper Collins, 1994.

Lessing, Doris, Walking in the Shade (vol. 2), London: HarperCollins, 1998.

Schlueter, Paul ed., A Small Personal Voice: Doris Lessing, Essays, Reviews, Interviews, New York: Vintage, 1972.

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Notes

1 The Golden Notebook was published two years after DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was eventually allowed to be published in Britain, having been censored for thirty-two years.

2 In the famous essay entitled “A Small Personal Voice” (1957), Doris Lessing asserted that “literature should be committed” (Schlueter 6).

3 In the famous essay entitled “A Small Personal Voice” (1957), Doris Lessing asserted that “literature should be committed” (Schlueter 6).

4 Doris Lessing, Under my Skin (vol. 1), London: Harper Collins, 1994. Walking in the Shade (vol. 2), London: HarperCollins, 1998.

5 For example, Doris Lessing married a communist German refugee during the war in order to protect him against the nazis.

6 Decisively, the idea of cleft can be understood in the Freudian sense of Spaltung, or the splitting of the ego.

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Référence papier

Anne-Laure Brevet, « Table ronde: Doris Lessing Introduction », Études britanniques contemporaines, 36 | 2009, 89-92.

Référence électronique

Anne-Laure Brevet, « Table ronde: Doris Lessing Introduction », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 36 | 2009, mis en ligne le 08 septembre 2017, consulté le 19 janvier 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/3719 ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.3719

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Auteur

Anne-Laure Brevet

Université de Bretagne Occidentale.
Anne-Laure Brevet has been teaching at the University of Brest for eight years after completing her doctorate at the University of Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle. Her thesis is entitled Le Sujet et ses reflets dans l’œuvre romanesque de Doris Lessing. As a lecturer she has continued her researching work on Doris Lessing and dedicated most of her scholarly articles to this writer (‘Individuation through Contrast; the “Heliotropic” Displacement of the Feminine Self in Doris Lessing’s Four-Gated City’, Études britanniques contemporaines 25, 2003). She currently teaches translation and commentary based on a selection of works by Doris Lessing.

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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