When giving thanks this holiday weekend, have a good thought for the long life of Doris Lessing, the marvelous writer who died on November 17 at age 94. Assessments of Lessing often label her a feminist. Lessing herself rejected that label even before renouncing all “isms.” No doubt Lessing’s life and her signature work, The Golden Notebook extended the boundaries for women, but her writing bagged far bigger game.
Lessing was the great chronicler of how the human mind processes emotion. She explained psychology far better than any textbook through case studies of her hundreds of characters. As I glided through her Children of Violence series on colonial life in Africa and repatriation – Martha Quest (the heroine’s fabulously apt name), A Proper Marriage, A Ripple From the Storm, Landlocked and The Four-Gated City – I’d sigh after reading a passage that delved into a character’s feelings, thinking, “I wish I could write like that.”
Whether the subject was human connections, as in Love, Again, or politics and violence, as in The Good Terrorist, her characters’ situations became the reader’s own here and now as they struggled to plot a course that was true to their own moral compass, however buffeted by their own times it may be.
The selection committee righted a great wrong when it awarded Lessing the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007. It’s too late to do justice to John Updike, whose Rabbit Angstrom books tell the tale of postwar America better than any history book, and who could simply write the heck out of any subject. But it’s not too late for Philip Roth. The Ghost Writer is, along with The Great Gatsby, the best American novel you can read in a day. The Human Stain is the best thing I’ve read this century.
Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.