It takes Doris Lessing just four minutes to come out with something, if not actually controversial, then at least unexpected. It’s about Hitler. She says she understands him. This from a former member of the Communist Party. (She left in 1956, the year of Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Congress, the one in which he denounced Stalin.) We are talking, I should explain, about Erich Maria Remarque, the author of All Quiet on the Western Front. She recently read another of his books, about three German soldiers who, like Hitler, return from the Great War to the economic chaos of the Weimar Republic. ‘They see people carting millions of marks around in wheelbarrows and, being old comrades, they stand by each other. And as you read that you suddenly understand Hitler.’
She’s not condoning Hitler, of course, merely explaining his early popularity. I mention her comment to show her endearingly cavalier way with language. She doesn’t care what people might think. She is past caring. And there is a greatness to this lack of care. How many 88-year-olds do you know who have become a worldwide phenomenon on YouTube, for example? She did, last year, when the press descended on the house in West Hampstead where she has lived for the past 30 years, the house in which we are sitting now. As she emerged from a black cab with her son, Peter, who, eccentrically, was wearing a boa of fresh onions around his neck, she was told she had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was asked for a comment. This was the first she had heard of it, yet she was heroically unimpressed. ‘Oh Christ,’ she said, waving the question away. ‘I couldn’t care less…I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one.’
She was more gracious later, saying all the right things, but now when I ask about that Nobel moment she reverts to form. ‘Who are these people? They’re a bunch of bloody Swedes.’
‘They sell a lot of dynamite, Doris,’ Peter says. He has shuffled in to say hello, wearing a tea cosy on his head. He lives here, debilitated by diabetes. They had been returning from the hospital on that day of the Nobel announcement.
‘This is my son,’ Doris says, unnecessarily.
‘The other one being dead.’ Peter adds, equally unnecessarily. (Her elder son, John, a coffee farmer in Zimbabwe, died of a heart attack in 1992.)
‘Why have you got a tea cosy on your head, Peter?’
‘Because I’ve got a cold, Doris.’
The answer seems to satisfy her. ‘Anyway,’ she says, turning back to me, ‘the whole thing is a joke. The Nobel Prize is run by a self-perpetuated committee. They vote for themselves and get the world’s publishing industry to jump to their tune. I know several people who have won and you don’t do anything else for a year but Nobel. They are always coming out with new torments for me. Downstairs there are 500 things I have to sign for them.’
After I was buzzed into the house, I had indeed passed many boxes on my way up the stairs. I had also seen Peter at the end of a corridor, sitting at the kitchen table in his pyjamas. He nonchalantly, wordlessly, pointed a thumb in the direction of the sitting-room. That was where I found his mother, who is 5ft tall, with a soft, creased face, framed with grey tendrils that escape from a carelessly assembled bun.
The room, by the way, is everything you would hope a literary giant’s sitting-room might be: splendidly chaotic, more like a junk shop. Someone once said that Lessing seemed to camp out in her own home. There are stacks of books, some teetering precariously, a globe, a tray of nick-nacks, African masks, oil paintings, rugs rucked up on the floor. She lives in here now, sleeping on a red sofa because her backache, caused by osteoporosis, makes it difficult for her to sleep on a bed. She shares the sofa with her huge cat, Yum-Yum, the name taken from The Mikado. ‘One day I’ll fall over Yum-Yum and have to be carted off to hospital,’ she says, stroking the cat. Lessing is clear-minded and clear-voiced, but she does seem to gnaw at words, biting them, talking through gritted teeth like Clare Short. It gives even her moments of frivolity a certain sternness.
This most prolific and unconventional of writers has written the novel she claims will be her last (she has done more than 50 and ‘enough is enough’). The first half of Alfred & Emily is a novella about how life might have turned out for her parents had it not been for the First World War. The second half is a biography of her parents. Her mother was a nurse during the war. ‘She was warm-hearted but insensitive,’ Lessing says. ‘Nursing the wounded must have been hell. They would arrive by the lorry load, some already dead. That must have torn her up. It took me a long time to allow her that.’
Her father had been a soldier in the trenches. In 1917, shrapnel almost killed him. He had to wear a wooden leg and missed Passchendaele, the battle in which the rest of his company were killed. ‘My father was talking about men he knew who died at Passchendaele up until the day he died,’ Lessing says. ‘He often wondered if it would have been better if he had died with them. He didn’t let his disability hold him back, though. He did everything. I even saw him lowered down a rough mine shaft in a bucket, his wooden leg sticking out and banging against the rocky sides.’ He died at 62, an old man. ‘On the death certificate, cause of death should have been written as the Great War.’
She thinks much of her own character was informed by the war, through her parents. Without it, she might not have been writer, not had what Graham Greene said all writers must have, a chip of ice in her heart. ‘Well, I’ve often thought about it. I was born out of the First World War. My father’s rage at the trenches took me over when I was young and never left. It is as if that old war is in my own memory; my own consciousness. It gave me a terrible sense of foreboding, a belief that things could never be ordinary and decent, but always doom-ridden. The Great War squatted over my childhood. The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And my parents never passed up an opportunity to make me feel miserable about the past. I find that war sitting on me the older I get, the weight of it. How was it possible that we allowed this monstrous war? Why do we allow wars still? Now we are bogged down in Iraq in an impossible situation. I’ll be pleased when I’m dead. That will let me off worrying about all these wars.’
It is an extraordinarily comment, delivered in a matter-of-fact voice. And it reminds me of something she writes in Alfred & Emily: ‘You can be with old people and never suspect that whole continents of experience are there, just behind those ordinary faces.’ In Lessing’s case, you could never guess from her small but kind eyes that she hated her mother. ‘We hated each other,’ she clarifies. ‘We were quarrelling right from the start. She wouldn’t have chosen me as a daughter. I was landed on her. I must have driven her mad. She thought everything I did was to annoy her. She had an incredible capacity for self-delusion.’
Did the book help her to understand her parents more; to empathise with them? ‘Because my father had lost a leg, it was as if he were the only one who had the right to suffer, whereas my mother also suffered because of the war. She claimed her true love went down in a ship, but I was never sure, because the only photograph she had of him was from a newspaper. Something phoney about that. Why wouldn’t she have had a proper photograph?’ Lessing came to despise her mother, whom she coldly describes as having ‘bundling, rough, unkind, impatient hands’. A turning point in their relationship seems to have been when her mother claimed to be having a heart attack. ‘She called her children to her and said, “Poor mummy. Poor, poor mummy.” I was aged six and I hated her for it. This woman whimpering in her bed saying, pity me, pity me. How did a nurse talk all this rubbish about her heart? She must have known it was an anxiety attack rather than a heart attack. It was invented. My mother died happily of a stroke in her seventies.’
But not before she had taken to writing to her daughter to accuse her of being a prostitute. After a while, Doris would tear up her mother’s letters as they arrived, without opening them. She was eventually driven to see a therapist about this bizarre relationship. ‘My father and mother should never have been married,’ Lessing says. ‘He was so dreamy and sexual, whereas she was so brisk and efficient and cut and dried. They didn’t understand each other at all. She was always funny about sex. She didn’t hate it, so much as consider it hadn’t existed. She would talk about sex as if it were an annoying person with a cold, bothering her.’
Born in Persia (as it was then) in 1919, Doris May Tayler (as she was then) grew up on a maize farm in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), her parents having emigrated there after the war. She read voraciously: literary classics sent over from a London book club. But she was an unhappy child and would run away from time to time. She was also paranoid about her weight and pioneered a diet of peanut butter and tomatoes. She would eat nothing else for months. It worked. She left home, and school, when she was 15 and married Frank Wisdom in 1939, at age 19, whom she met while working at the telephone exchange in Salisbury. He was a civil servant 10 years her senior. She had two children and began climbing what she once potently described as the ‘Himalayas of tedium’ of young motherhood.
In 1945, at the age of 26, she abandoned her family and married Gottfried Lessing, a communist who was a driving force in the Left Book Club. It was ‘my revolutionary duty’, she once said. They had a son, Peter. Doris and Gottfried divorced four years later, in 1949. She kept the name of her second husband, which may seem like an odd thing for a feminist to do, but Lessing has never been a conventional feminist. She has never been a conventional anything.
She emigrated to England with Peter and the manuscript of her first book, The Grass is Singing. It is set in Rhodesia and depicts a poor white farmer whose wife has a relationship with their African servant. Published in 1950, when she was 31, it marked her as a coming star, one prepared to challenge racist conventions. It also revealed her to be a novelist of huge natural gifts and technical command. Though dense with the smells and sights of the veldt, its technique owed much to the Russian novelists she had been devouring, especially Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. But the life of the writer meant she had to be selfish. ‘Sentimentality is intolerable because it is false feeling,’ she says. For the next five years she would pay a family in the country to take her young child off her hands for a fortnight at a time so that she could write. ‘No one can write with a child around,’ she says. ‘It’s no good. You just get cross.’
She began mixing with the great and the good of literary London: her circle included John Berger, John Osborne, Bertrand Russell and Arnold Wesker. According to Wesker, ‘She was a good cook and gave wonderfully cosy dinner parties where we picked food from an assortment of plates and sat cross-legged eating it. She was like the best of her characters: concerned about friends, hugely intelligent, a no-nonsense person. She was impatient with humbug and pretentiousness. If you were guilty of neither of these, you were welcomed like family.’ Another of her friends at this time was the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. She had to stay the night with him once because it was late. ‘I wasn’t expecting anything but a nice chat. I went to get ready for bed and when I came back all these whips had appeared. What was really strange was that he never said anything like, “Oh Doris, would you like a little whipping?” And I never said, “Ken, what are all these whips for?” So we chatted away about politics, went to sleep, then, in the morning, in comes his secretary to tidy away the whips.’
As well as the stultifying suburban life of colonial Africa, her books have explored the divide across which men and women talk to each other, at each other; the earnestness and perversity of communism; the way in which passion does not diminish with age; and, most notably, female neurosis. Her most influential book is The Golden Notebook, published in 1962 and to this day considered a feminist classic. This often-experimental exercise in post-modern fiction chronicles the inner life of Anna Wulf, exploring what it means to be intelligent, frustrated and female. It starts from the assumption that the lives of women are intimately connected to the accounts of themselves that society allows them to give. This insight moulds the form of the novel itself, with Anna’s life being divided into different-coloured notebooks: black for writing, red for politics, blue for the everyday, and yellow for her feelings. The ‘golden notebook’ represents what Anna aspires to – the moment that will bring all her diverse selves into one whole.
With predictable unpredictability, the author now finds more to argue with in this work of her youth than do those feminists who elevated it to canonical status. She calls the novel her albatross and has come to regret the way critics failed to appreciate the structure of the novel, concentrating solely on its feminist message and its theme of mental breakdown as a means of healing and freeing the self from illusions. Her apparent irritation with the book may have had something to do with the adoring fans, especially feminists from America and Germany, who used to stand outside her gate in the summer. ‘It became the property of the feminists,’ she says. ‘Yet it was fundamentally a political book. I used to tire of having to explain to young readers in the 1970s what Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Congress meant to world communism. That’s what really gave the book its charge. At the time the comrades here were denying that Khrushchev had even made that speech, saying it was an invention of the capitalist press. Comrades were turning to drink in their despair.’
These days she can sound quite dismissive of the women’s liberation movement. ‘The battles have all been won,’ she says, ‘except for equal pay for equal work.’ And this seems to have alienated some of her former disciples. But what did the feminists expect? What did her communist comrades expect? What, for that matter, did the Nobel Prize committee expect? They certainly got more than they bargained for. Lessing seems to have been enjoying the extra weight her opinions carry now that she is a Nobel laureate. Her post-Nobel declaration to the Spanish paper El Pais was a case in point. She said that ‘September 11 was terrible but, if one goes back over the history of the IRA, what happened to the Americans wasn’t that terrible.’ It caused a furore in America, one that she seemed to revel in. For, as well as being uncompromising and single-minded, Lessing seems to regard herself as a professional contrarian. She was at her most obstreperous during last year’s Hay Festival of Literarature, flattening respectful questions from the audience with, ‘That doesn’t make any sense’ or ‘Explain yourself’.
She was right about the ‘bloody awards’, by the way. Her first was the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1954; since then she’s won everything – apart from the Booker, though she was shortlisted for it five times. In 1999, she was appointed a Companion of Honour. She was also asked to become a dame of the British Empire, but turned it down because it was ‘a bit pantomimey’. She has a pretty good idea of why the Nobel came along so late in her life. ‘It is probably because I have written in so many different ways, with never a thought that I didn’t have the right to.’
With her latest book she has come full circle to the Rhodesia of her childhood. There is a moving chapter in which she describes returning as an elderly woman to the country she had once loved, only to find it devastated by years of Mugabe’s tyrannous rule. She encounters a drunk and obnoxious black man who won’t let her see her father’s old farm. She had been a great champion of black rule. I ask if that encounter made her change her mind? ‘Would I have fought against the blacks if I had known what was going to happen? The answer is, no. Then again it wasn’t an attractive society I was brought up in. Quite ugly, in fact. If only it had been possible to say, “I will only support you if you behave properly once you get into power, instead of turning into a murderous beast like Mugabe.” Anyway, the fault is partly ours because why did we imagine that when the blacks got into power they would behave like, I don’t know, Philip Toynbee. Why did we assume this? Instead, we have this ugly little tyrant, Mugabe. An odious man. I’ve never understood what happened to him. Everyone I knew who knew him said he used to be intelligent. What a hypocrite to throw out the whites when he said he wouldn’t. Now look at the place. Starvation. Disease. Corruption. Low life expectancy. Terrible.’
Has she ever harboured any racist sentiments? ‘Of course I have. I was brought up surrounded by racists that nowadays no one would believe were possible. But I don’t think it’s a question of race. I think it is like the Romans in Britain. The Romans found us barbarians and left us barbarians, but roll on a few centuries and here we are civilised. My brother was quite extraordinarily racist. Thought he was superior to black people. You couldn’t believe it had never crossed his mind to think that not everyone agreed with his view that the blacks were baboons who had just come down from the trees. We didn’t see each for 30 years. Nothing had changed. Sitting in the kitchen here, I couldn’t have a conversation with him. I would have to count to 10. He tried to be a writer and was convinced I had stopped his own books being published. I hadn’t. It was simply that they were unpublishable. He was an archetypal inhibited Englishman who could only exist in the colonies. He would go scarlet with horror if the subject turned to sex or love.’
She says he became an alcoholic, and that she would have become one, too, had she stayed in Rhodesia. After all, her son stayed there and he became one. I ask what it is like to outlive your own child. ‘It goes against the rhythms of nature. Poor old John. He needn’t have died. I got on with him, though I disagreed with his politics. He was white with suffering and anxiety because of the drought. He was so buttoned up he wouldn’t scream and shout and complain. It is a trait of the British. You must try to weep occasionally.’
She also, of course, came to disagree with her second husband’s politics. ‘He couldn’t take my writing seriously,’ she says, ‘because he was a communist and thought me bourgeois and a Freudian. All these epithets. I find it almost impossible to believe that he remained a communist all his life. He was murdered in Kampala, you know. Ambushed. He got into a car with his second wife and drove straight towards Tanzania, which was mad, and they flame-throwered him, which was the most dreadful death, and it didn’t do his son any good. Peter was basically shattered by it. We think the communists did it because they put up a street name after him. That was how they did things.’ Communists, she now believes, are ‘murderers with a clear conscience’. But it took her a long time to get there. ‘Yes I called Marxism “the sweetest dream” in one of my books. Then I discovered it was all a load of old socks. It seems incredible now that quite intelligent people believed in it all. What doubts there were were expressed in sly jokes. The jokes contradicted everything we believed in. We used to joke about how we were wrong about everything.’
Knowing the restlessness of her mind and her inability to resist a chance to shock, I ask her whether she now thinks Margaret Thatcher was a hero for standing up to the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War. No such luck. ‘She ended the Cold War did she? Well good for her. I couldn’t stand her.’