On Her 100th Birthday, Doris Lessing And The Jews
Doris Lessing, who died on November 17, 2013 at age 94, won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature for her prolific writings ranging from autobiography to what she called “space fiction.” Sometimes overlooked was the lasting inspiration which Lessing, born Doris May Tayler in 1919 in Persia, drew from Jews and Jewish heritage. In 1925, her family moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia where she was educated at a Roman Catholic convent school, until age fourteen, after which any organized education ceased. Subsequently, Lessing’s education would be enhanced by encounters with Jews, especially at the Left Book Club, where she met her future second husband, Gottfried Lessing (1914-1979) a German lawyer of Jewish heritage who fled his native country to escape Nazism. They married in 1944, and even though the marriage did not prove to be a lasting one, its influence is clear in Lessing’s five autobiographical novels in the “Children of Violence” series (1952–69), beginning with “Martha Quest,” about a free-spirited daughter of British colonials living in Southern Rhodesia from 1936 to 1949.
Lessing herself left Africa for England in 1949, loathing racism of all kinds. Martha Quest is drawn to Jews in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (today’s Harare, Zimbabwe). A Jewish lawyer hires Martha, enabling her to escape the isolation of rural life with her parents, who express racist colonial ideology. Martha has romances with Jewish young men and marries a German leftist refugee (as did Lessing). Female Jewish friends instruct Martha on everything from politics to fashion, and it becomes clear that Lessing’s protagonist owes her education as a liberal, thinking spirit to these Jews who had gathered in Southern Rhodesia. In “Martha Quest,” Lessing writes of Joss and Solly Cohen, a shopkeeper’s sons of a shop-owner who send the heroine books, which help her attain a “dispassionate eye” on her country’s misfortunes: “This detached observer, felt perhaps as a clear-lit space situated just behind the forehead, was the gift of the Cohen boys at the station.”
In her two-volume autobiography, “Under My Skin” and “Walking in the Shade,”, Lessing admitted that the characters in the Martha Quest series were based on real people she had known. Lessing also notes that in her 1962 novel, “The Golden Notebook,” the character Molly, a militant leftist, was inspired by her friend Joan Rodker, daughter of the British Jewish poet and publisher John Rodker.. (Saul Green, another “Golden Notebook” character, is based on the Chicago-born Jewish author Clancy Sigal, a onetime lover of Lessing’s) Joan Rodker was born to a dancer, Sonia Cohen and Rodker, one of the emigre Jewish “Whitechapel Boys” – an artistic/literary group which also included poet Isaac Rosenberg and painter David Bomberg).
At one time in London, Lessing lodged with Rodker, who urged her to perform her “revolutionary duty,” such as by organizing a petition in defense of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (even though Lessing was convinced they were guilty). As Lessing later recalled: “Going up and down the stairs I passed the open door into the little kitchen, often crammed with comrades having a snack, talking, shouting, or imparting news in confidential tones… The atmosphere made every encounter, every conversation important, because if you were a communist, then the future of the world depended on you.”
Lessing soon became aware of Soviet anti-Semitism, as she noted in a 1992 speech at the Rutgers University, later reprinted in “Our Country, Our Culture: The Politics of Political Correctness”:
“We did not have to identify with the Soviet Union, with its seventy-odd years of logic-chopping, of idiotic rhetoric, brutality, concentration camps, pogroms against the Jews. Again and again, failure. And, from our point of view, most important, the thousand mind-wriggling ways of defending failure. I think the history of Europe would have been very different. Socialism would not now be so discredited, and above all, our minds would not automatically fall into the habit of ‘capitalism or socialism.’”
From Communism’s failure, Lessing drew the conclusion: “We need to learn to watch our minds, our behavior. We need to do some rethinking. It is a time, I think, for definitions.”
This prudent, watchful stance was further expressed in a series of futuristic dystopias, five novels grouped as “Canopus in Argos: Archives (1979–1983).” The critic Robert Alter has praised them as a “combination of fantasy and morality.” The first volume, Shikasta, is presented as a documentary account of a planet in danger. In a preface, Lessing describes her inspiration from the Old Testament, adding with understatement: “It is possible we make a mistake when we dismiss the sacred literatures of all races and nations as quaint fossils from a dead past… It is our habit to dismiss the Old Testament altogether because Jehovah, or Jahve, does not think or behave like a social worker.” Such narratives as the Tower of Babel and Sodom and Gomorrah are paralleled, albeit with the addition of spaceships and other sci fi-style paraphernalia.
Throughout her long life, Lessing maintained a genial bonhomie towards Jews, telling the Associated Press in 2006 that when the American Jewish feminist Betty Friedan visited her in London, Lessing found her to be a “good Jewish mother, we got on like anything.” She had a more mixed view of Allen Ginsberg and his Beat Poet pals, whom she found “extremely likable, but this isn’t how they wanted to be seen… they weren’t as frightening and as shocking as they wanted to be. They were mostly middle-class people trying to be annoying.” Lessing annoyed many readers during her career, including Middle East scholars, when her nonfictional “The Wind Blows Away Our Words: a Firsthand Account of the Afghan Resistance,” claimed that the Pashtun, the main Afghan ethnic group, are “really Jews.” Following legends according to which the Pashtun are originally descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, supposedly explaining why some Pashtun names and customs echo Jewish ones, Lessing may have placed the power of myth and narrative over strict documentary truth; this was yet another example of her ardent novelistic imagination, which welcomed Jews wherever she might find them.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.