This profile originally appeared in the June 2, 1969 issue of Publishers Weekly.
Doris Lessing has been paying her first visit to America and PW was fortunate enough to interview her recently. Mrs. Lessing, a highly original writer, with a talent that is not quite like that of anyone else writing in English today, has just had the fifth and final volume in her epic Children of Violence sequence of novels, The Four-Gated City, published by Knopf.
Reviewers are finding it contains some of her most provocative writing yet—taking positions about psychiatry and mental illness, in particular, and about the future of mankind that are quite outside the mainstream of "popular" opinion. The five novels that make up the Children of Violence all focus in some way on a woman called Martha Quest, whose experiences, from an African girlhood, through marriage and divorce and participation for a time in the Communist Party, are not without certain parallels in Doris Lessing's own life.
Mrs. Lessing was born in Persia, but moved as a child to Southern Rhodesia with her British immigrant parents. She began writing, she told PW, when she was 14 or 15, "but everything I wrote for years was rubbish. The only advice I would ever give to a young writer is, 'just go on writing.'"
Her own first published work in book form consisted of two short story collections, The Grass Is Singing and This Was the Old Chiefs Country, which dealt with whites and blacks in Africa with great sympathy. A "prohibited immigrant," whom the white supremacist government in Southern Rhodesia today will not let return to that country, although she has both a son and a brother living there, Mrs. Lessing has always been an outspoken foe of apartheid in any form. "I did not know until I left [for England in 1949] how awful it really was," she says of Rhodesia. "It was such an emotionally heated atmosphere.
There was such a tiny minority against white racism. There have always been more whites and blacks in South Africa that fought back than in Rhodesia." The race attitude of the white British settlers in Rhodesia has been worse in many ways than that of the Afrikaners in South Africa, Mrs. Lessing believes. "The English have a capacity for doing the same things other people do and not saying so. It is known as hypocrisy," she says dryly.
"I was a Communist when being one meant that you automatically thought the Soviet Union was a fine place," Mrs. Lessing told us, looking back. "Now it can mean any damn thing you please." (She joined the Party in Britain about three years after coming to England and left in disillusionment a few years later.) "There's one thing about it," she told PW, "if you have ever been near any Communist Party you can never be naive about the power structure again. Marxism leaves you with a very skeptical attitude of mind. Actually, I was never so much a Communist as I was in Rhodesia, where there wasn't any Communist Party as such, but there was a great deal of concern about abstract principles."
From the beginning, Mrs. Lessing said, she planned the Children of Violence sequence to consist of five novels. "I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to do. Practically all of the things I deal with in the series were there in some degree in the first two novels. [The first, Martha Quest, was published in 1952.] I think that the part of one's self that writes does not change that much, although your emotional set-up may change."
Mrs. Lessing does not keep notes in her writing. "I can carry an awful lot of things in my head," she said. When she was writing the long multi-level novel, The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, she "started writing on page one and went straight on to the end." It took about three years. Before going on with each new novel in the Children of Violence sequence she would read back over the others to see that she had the names and dates right, but that was about all. "I did not have some great kind of scheme in mind like 'The Forsyte Saga,' but I knew the project was going to take about 20 years." She summed up: "Lots of people have this kind of feeling about what in life is going to be right for them."
The first four volumes in the Children of Violence sequence and all of her other writing for the last seven years was published by Simon and Schuster. The Four-Gated City is being pubhshed by Knopf because Doris Lessing is one of the authors who followed her editor, Robert Gottlieb, there. Of Gottlieb, to whom she pays special tribute in a note in the book, she says, simply, "He cares about the books and one's welfare. He puts an immense amount of energy and effort into it."
For herself, Mrs. Lessing says she finds it "physically tiring" being a novelist, and until recently could not have survived on the money from her writing alone. She has done quite a bit of writing for British Granada TV when she needed the money, and has enjoyed it, but would prefer not to have to do this kind of writing in addition to her more serious work. She was one of three TV writers who took turns writing for Granada, a series based on Maupassant short stories. "We just dealt the stories out around the table," she recalls. "It was very good discipline, this, for a writer."
One of the things Doris Lessing has consciously tried to do in her own writing is "to write about life as it was lived, to put in the kind of things people really talk about." American literature has much more of this, she believes, but there was a curious gap in this kind of fiction in Britain after H. G. Wells until recently. Mrs. Lessing has no patience with what she calls "Mandarin literature. I find it very hard to identify with anyone in novels by Henry James," she says.
"The Four-Gated City" in many ways takes a somber view of life today and in the not so distant future. "I don't feel particularly jolly about the future," Mrs. Lessing told PW. "The human race has an infinite capacity for absorbing human suffering.
"You read so many statistics about American violence that one gets a feeling of smugness in Britain, but if you live there, there is a sort of concealed desperation. What is pleasant about London is what is bad for us as a nation, a sort of shrug of the shoulders, a not caring too much."
One of the aspects of The Four-Gated City that readers are finding most outside their usual way of thinking lies in the treatment of mental illness. "I'll lay a bet that in the next 10 or 15 years there is going to be an almost total change in the way people look at schizophrenia," Mrs. Lessing said. "Certain classes of people who are now regarded as ill will not be regarded as ill at all."
Psychiatrists are in no sense infallible, she insists in the novel, and it is something she feels strongly about personally. We should ask more questions of psychiatrists, she emphasizes, and not be so willing to take everything they say as gospel. When someone is deeply and desperately depressed (a situation with which she deals in important terms in the new novel), they may be depressed for a very good reason. "Depression might be a message from another part of you that you ought not to be living like this, or that you're scared of dying." Instead, "death and depression today have this great smile painted over them."
Sometimes, Mrs. Lessing believes, it is better "to shout and scream and throw glasses. Why not be depressed if you feel like it? We are always being told, 'be happy, if it kills you.' Why should one be?"
The relationship between men and women, in and outside of marriage, is a recurrent theme in Doris Lessing's writing. "The relationship between boys and girls today is much less demanding and more relaxed," she believes, "but sometimes I think the only way to deal with the whole sex thing is to get married at 19, have our children, and stay married, not expecting anything more. The only real reason to get married is having children. Otherwise men and women should just live together."
The other aspect of The Four-Gated City that is proving especially intriguing and arousing considerable comment is the future Mrs. Lessing foresees in which human beings have developed to a high degree a sense of extra-sensory perception. She is very serious about this. "I think ESP is going on all the time, but it is a convention to pretend it does not happen," she told PW. "All my life I have known certain things before they happen, but they tend to be extremely trivial." ESP, she believes, may be for many people, "an atrophied sense" that could be brought back into use again. "All kinds of things are now taken for granted that used to be suspect. Telepathy is now a respectable subject for study."
As for her own work, Mrs. Lessing has already started another novel, which she hopes to finish in about a year. It is to be called Briefing for a Descent into Hell, and it will be, she said, "a mad, dreamlike book, completely different from anything I have done before."
Doris Lessing is particularly known for her Children of Violence novels, The Golden Notebook, her reportage and short stories, but there is one of her nonfiction books that has become a classic on a much gentler level. It is Particularly Cats, an utterly unsentimental, honest statement of affection for cats Mrs. Lessing has known over the years. We are happy to report that Gray Cat, one of the feline heroes of the last part of the book, is still living with Mrs. Lessing. The other, Black Cat, "just walked off one day," but Son of Black Cat lives on.