At eighty-two, Doris Lessing towers over the literature of the last half century. She has charted the lives and shaped the imaginations of successive generations with fiction that investigates the condition of women as well as the dynamics of political and sexual passion. She has dissected social movements, racial hatred, and madness, and has conjured future worlds bound by their own myths and religions. Lessing's new novel, The Sweetest Dream (HarperCollins, $26.95), takes us back into the '60s and examines three generations of women whose lives are threaded through recent British and African history. Their stories provide a vivid picture of lives distorted by dreams. I interviewed Lessing in her north London home, a rambling warren of books and papers. Delicate and clear-eyed, she has a sweet sagacity about her, but her impish wit still abounds, poised to puncture critical categories and cultural stereotypes.



LISA APPIGNANESI: When I looked at your publications page in The Sweetest Dream I was struck by the sheer size of itˇsome two dozen works: long novels, collections of short stories, plays, operas. How have you managed such extraordinary productivity? Where does the inspiration come from?

DORIS LESSING: It's not inspiration. You see, I haven't done much else. I haven't had a vivid social life. And all kinds of circumstances have kept me pretty tightly circumscribed. What I've done is write. I used to have a very great deal of energy, which, alas, seems to have leaked away out of my toes somewhere. So I don't know. I'm just a natural writer. I can't imagine doing anything else.

LA: You say you don't do much else apart from write, yet you seem to have a wealth of ideas. Where do they come from? Do they soak into you from the streets?

DL: Yes, they do soak into me from the streets or anywhere. I was on the underground yesterday and I was watching a fascinating group of English girls, office girls I think, off to a party. And they are so smart. They were having such a good time. I was contrasting them with me at that age and also looking at how they were dressed. They might just as well have been in uniform. Their clothes were practically identical, and the knots on their scarves were identical. I think we are people who need conformity. And that set me offˇI had a nice sort of plot appear in my mind and vanish again.

LA: When beginning a book, do you know what kind of book it will be? I know you dislike critical categories since they don't grow out of the actual writing, but do you know in the broadest sense if it's, say, a realist canvas?

DL: Oh, yes. I know exactly what I'm going to do. But, if you've ever actually analyzed a realist novel, "realism" does rather vanish doesn't it? I was listening to a reading of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice last night on the radio and thinking how her realism is set up so carefully. I mean, no science fiction writer could do it better than she does. Or Charlotte BrontŰ. That's supposedly realism. But, in fact, it's always on the verge of the grotesque, something impossible.

LA: Nonetheless, within literary convention, there are still differences between a fable or a tale and a realist canvas, a difference between say, The Golden Notebook and the "Canopus in Argos" series.

DL: I don't think like that. What happens is I get seized by the pleasure of an idea. There's a phrase for it. It's the "fine delight that follows thought." That's Gerard Manley Hopkins. Something happens, or you overhear something, and you suddenly get seized with the sheer pleasure of it. Critics don't understand that. They're always suggesting, for instance, that you wrote a book where you were influenced by Kierkegaard or someone. Instead, you were influenced simply by the pleasure, the delight of an idea.

LA: And the girls on the tube.

DL: Actually it was a Muriel Spark novel I was thinking of. She would like those girls.

LA: You've just been in terrible trouble for saying that feminism is all rot and that it went off in the wrong direction.

DL: The whole thing is a joke. I was in Edinburgh. There was one question about feminism, and I said what I was thinking at the time, which was that it had gone too far. And I told the story about this teacher telling her class of nineˇ and tenˇyearˇolds that war was all the fault of the boys. You can imagine the result on the little boys, and the little girls were being so conceited. The Guardian journalistˇThe Guardian, as far as I'm concerned, is the pitsˇwrote an article quoting half of what I said, and she made up the rest. The trouble I got into was over supposedly saying that women now had parity with men in earnings. But in fact, I never said it. I couldn't possibly have said it. What a fuss. And the vitriolic letters I got from my ever˝loving sisters. Anyway, I think I'm more of a feminist than they are because my agendaˇequal pay for equal work, equal opportunity, and decent nursery provisionˇis one they haven't caught up with. My mentor when I was a girl used to quote this to us and say, until you've got this you haven't got equality with men. Nothing has changed. Where are the feminists out fighting for things like decent nursery provision? Nowhere. They're all up on stages somewhere.

LA: Can you give me a very brief history of your political passions?

DL: Well, the very first one, when I was growing up, was trying to change the racist situation for blacks in Southern Rhodesia. After that, I don't think that I have had passionate positions. I certainly didn't have one on feminism, because when I wrote The Golden Notebook, I had other ideas in mind.

LA: You were interested in the breakdown of belief in Communism.

DL: Yes. What I was writing about was extreme positions. It was about free women who broke down into madness, people who went crazy.

LA: Are you saying you didn't experience political passion, that you only watched that in others?

DL: No, I had about two years of the pure "being a Communist" in Southern Rhodesia. It disappeared very fast because I was married to a 150% Communist, Gottfried Lessing. That cures you very quickly. A man who would send you to Coventry for five days if you made a remark about Stalin. He didn't change at all his entire life. I read in one of the reviews of The Sweetest Dream that Comrade Johnny was a caricature. He's not a caricature. This is what they were like.

LA: The Sweetest Dream begins in the '60s, a period you initially described while you were living through it, in part of the "Children of Violence" sequence. You've come back to it now and judge it harshly. Do you think that your perspective has changed on what it was that the '60s were about?

DL: Well, I need to begin by saying that I have friends who were young in the '60s and say it was the most wonderful time that ever was, that I'm just being an old sourpuss and I don't understand how fantastic it was. But I was that particular '60s figure (like Frances, in the book): a house mother. These kids were in the most diabolical trouble, every one of them. Why were they? I mean they were probably the most privileged generation that ever existed. There never has been a generation that was so well off and so well clothed and so well fed. But the fallout was immense, and the people ended up in loony bins and committing suicide and have never got over drugs and so on.

LA: Why do you think that was?

DL: I personally think you cannot have two major world wars with all the horror of it and then say, OK, that's fine, enough, finished. Now we're going to be peaceful and happy. I don't think it happens like that. And all these kids had been children in the war or had fathers off fighting, or some of them had, you know, been close to the war. I think that in some deep psychological way the Second World War was working its way out in the '60s and '70s. Funny how we never talked about it. But it was a very, very violent time.

LA: You say in your author's note to The Sweetest Dream, "I'm not writing volume three of my autobiography because of possible hurt to vulnerable people, which does not mean I have novelized autobiography." In other words, you're saying that this book exists instead of volume three of your autobiography. What's the difference?

DL: Well, take the '60s scene . . . They're all invented characters, some of them borrowed from other households, because you know I was not the only Earth Mother around. I didn't want to use people who were actually there, you know, who are friends of mine. It's not fair. But I hope I got the atmosphere of the '60s right. That's what I wanted to do. Now as for this hospital in Africa I visited, if I had described only what I saw with this particular doctor in the bush, it would be a kind of reporting. But I didn't. I married together that which I heard a great deal about and saw with a trip I made in the company of an oldˇfashioned Catholic priest and a newˇfashioned nun who was a feminist and hated the pope, and mixed all this together and made it part of a novel.

LA: Do you think when you transform this real experience into fiction you end up marrying more qualities and characteristics, that you end up with a more "typical" experience than if you had stuck to the strictly autobiographical truth?

DL: Yes. See, I could have described a trip for, I think it was a week, in the company of my priest and the nun up to these wild places, and it would have made a very entertaining account, believe me. Can you imagine this scene, this oldˇfashioned priest listening to this nun carrying on about the pope? "Well, yes, sister. But I cannot help feeling that you are not taking all the factors into account. . . ." I could have done that. But if you mix it all up like a syrup pudding, you get a different feel to it.

LA: Comparing your autobiographical volumes to the new novel, do you think the way you use memory is different from the way you employ imagination?

DL: Yes. For the autobiography I worked hard trying to remember what really happened. Until I sat down to write, I had never thought about the subject. I just assumed, well, I'd remember it all. Then it suddenly occurred to me just how much one's parents put memories into one. So I spent enormous amounts of time asking, Did that really happen or did I make it up? I think my memories are more or less true but, you know, it's very interesting if you keep a diary how you can look back and see the difference between what you saw happen and what memory has made of it.

LA: Did you keep a diary for this period?

DL: I didn't keep a diaryˇI had notes of various kinds. I'm pretty well certain about most of it. But the real question that bothered me is that autobiography is supposed to be your life. But you can't possibly write it all, otherwise you'd write millions of words. So you cut out whole rafts of people, scenes, and events. How can this be true? You have to choose, just like writing a novel. Out this goes, out that goes.

LA: Do you have a particular favorite among your books?

DL: Yes. I think the two books that are likely to, certainly short term, be remembered are The Grass Is Singing and The Golden Notebook. The Grass Is Singing because it was such a period piece of its time, and The Golden Notebook because it was also so much of its time. But I'm wondering about the others, you see, because I thinkˇwell what would The Fifth Child look like fifty years from now? I just don't know.

LA: In The Sweetest Dream you show how Africans who have been educated here then go back to Africa and take bits of Englishness with them, either in distorted or in good ways. You've created this wonderful picture of Zimbabwe, of idealism going astray.

DL: Oh, it's so politically incorrect. My God. The response has been a stunned silence. First I have all this business about the character Sylvia being so white. The facts are, right, black men are fascinated by white women. And one of them told me, "Doris, you know that every black man's dream when he comes to England is to get into bed with a white woman and stroke that long, blond hair." This book is just about as politically incorrect as it could be, I'm delighted to say.

LA: Yes, it reminds me of your saying that the thing feminism hadn't given us was a sense of our own ridiculousness.

DL: Well, you know, God, that was a time. You see, I just feel I'm very glad that period went by. Switch this off and I'll tell you a funny story.

  Lisa Appignanesi's most recent novels are Paris Requiem (McArthur, 2001) and Sanctuary (Bantam, 2000). Freud's Women (Basic Books, 2001), coauthored with John Forrester, is available in the US from the Other Press. She lives in London.