It’s easy to forget when one sees how ubiquitous the “author reading” has become that there was a time when this custom was practically unheard of. Writers are, after all, often introverted, timid - even misanthropic - and generally tasked with sitting alone in a room, mired in their own thoughts and pulling words out of thin air which they clack down onto screens and then woops no that won’t do...erase that erase erase. Do it again. Writers, at least in our often romantic notion of them, are watchers, not do-ers. They linger in the backgrounds and take notes. They brood. Maybe, though, this very notion is one that is fast becoming anachronistic. For in today’s market-driven go-go-go warp speed world, authors are expected to write a book a year, Tweet witty quips regularly to their tens of thousands of followers, snap brilliant Instagram pics with their lattes and labradors, do the talk show circuit, serve on prize juries, write newspaper columns (“The Death of the Novel”), fly on planes from festival to library to festival and perform their own work on stages to thunderous applause, sign books for hours, listen patiently as readers gush, talk with authority on TV or a podcast episode about the state of this or that or the other- and then innovate, advocate, pontificate. It’s a wonder writers write at all. This long and windy diatribe to simply point out one brief and lovely moment when Doris Lessing announces from the stage that this reading, this moment from a Harbourfront event in Toronto in 1984, is her first reading. Ever. And when you, the listener, realize that Doris Lessing, though far from being at the end of her career (she was already in her mid-60s by this point), for just a moment you get a glimpse into that other former world of the writer as loner, as someone charged with quietly finding the words and writing them out, not broadcasting them to the world. There is a sweetness to imagining her there on that stage, wondering how she got there, blinking into the lights, dry-throated, looking out into that room of eager faces waiting for her to speak, to be more than a mere writer. And it’s that world, that old world where writers wrote quietly in rooms (and drank and scrapped and raged - some things never change) and you can hear hints of that old world in her voice when she reads these two beautiful stories about young girls on the cusp of adulthood. That’s the Doris Lessing we hear as we “look” into that world from before, a world she is about to leave behind, stepping up to that microphone for the first time, clearing her throat and letting go of the past. *** This audio recording of Doris Lessing, recorded on stage at Harbourfront Reading Series in 1984, is used with the kind permission of The Doris Lessing Literary Will Trust as well as the Toronto International Festival of Authors. And, as always, thanks to TIFA, the Toronto International Festival of Authors, for allowing us access to their archives. Find out more at FestivalOfAuthors.ca.
Works by Doris Lessing
The Golden Notebook
Stories by Doris Lessing
The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels
The Grass is Singing (ebook)
Other Related Books or Materials
Doris Lessing: A Biography by Carole Klein
Doris Lessing: First Visit to Toronto (link opens a 1984 photo by Reg Innell, courtesy of Toronto Star Archives at Toronto Public Library)
Doris Lessing, Author Who Swept Aside Convention (link opens New York Times obituary from November 2013
Doris Lessing, The Art of Fiction (link opens Paris Review interview from 1988)
About the Host
Novelist Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and principal of St. Michael’s College, where he holds the Basilian Chair in Christianity, Arts, and Letters. He is the author of three novels: Original Prin, Beggar's Feast, and Governor of the Northern Province. His fiction has been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize (2006) and IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize (2012), and named a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice Selection (2012 and 2019) and Globe and Mail Best Book (2018). He contributes essays, reviews, and opinions to publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, First Things, Commonweal, Harper’s, Financial Times (UK), Guardian, New Statesman, Globe and Mail, and National Post, in addition to appearing frequently on CBC Radio. He served as President of PEN Canada from 2015-2017.
Music is by Yuka
From the Archives
Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is the first series associated with the Toronto Public Library’s multi-year digital initiative, From the Archives, which presents curated and digitized audio, video and other content from some of Canada’s biggest cultural institutions and organizations.
Thanks to the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) for allowing TPL access to their archives to feature some of the best-known writers in the world from moments in the past. Thanks as well to Library and Archives Canada for generously allowing TPL access to these archives.
Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA
Season 1, Episode 23
Doris Lessing: Homage to the New Man
OPENING MUSIC SEGMENT
Randy Boyagoda: Welcome to Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA, produced by the Toronto Public Library. I’m Randy Boyagoda. In this episode, Doris Lessing makes history …
Doris Lessing: After getting herself a glass of tepid tasting water from the filter, she walked very slowly through the house again, taking in everything, and then she went home. At supper, she said, casual, "I went to see Mr. Royan today." Her father looked quickly at her mother, who dropped her eyes and crumbled bread. That meant they had discussed the incident of the kiss. "How is he?" asked Mrs. Grant, casual and bright. "He wasn't there." Her father said nothing.
RANDY: My lasting image of Doris Lessing dates to October 2007, when she was surprised at home by reporters informing her she’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature. According to film footage, she’s informed when she gets out of a car, on her way into her house. She comes back out and holds forth from her front step, with microphones all around her. She seems, more than anything else, annoyed by the attention. This isn’t some literary version of humble-brag – she seems genuinely annoyed. She explains that she’s already won every other imaginable award, that she was informed years ago that the Nobel Prize people didn’t like her work and thus didn’t expect this, and above all else, at the age of 87, she wants the hoopla over with so that she can get back to her writing. It’s no surprise, then, that she entitled her acceptance speech “On Not Receiving the Nobel Prize,” just as it’s no surprise that she was a committed Marxist in her twenties and thereafter refuted Marxism and other ideologies, or that she converted to Catholicism while in convent school and then became an atheist. Her work displays a similar intensity of commitment and rejection of impositions, including The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, and multi-part novels about life in British Africa and life in outer space, all of which have enjoyed both popular and critical acclaim for decades. The Golden Notebook itself, a novel that takes up universal human concerns from an unapologetically feminist vantage, was, as Margaret Atwood noted in an encomium to Lessing following her death, in 2013, “iconic” for women readers, writers, and intellectuals. Lessing was as well, though not with any especial interest in having a public life beyond the published page. Indeed, this 1984 reading, in Toronto, was, amazingly, her first time reading in public, and an experience she cited thereafter at other readings. As for what she reads, in her arch and matter-of-fact voice, wait for the stunning moment in the first story, when a young girl suddenly sees her parents looking smaller, as she struggles to come to terms with the ugly reality of her own predicament and their blindness to it, or wait for the audience’s delighted, if perhaps a little dumbfounded laughter, throughout the second story, and especially at news of thirteen-year old Catherine’s plans to emulate Isaac Babel. Lessing calls this story semi-autobiographical, which invites all kinds of speculation given the dynamism of her personal trajectory into becoming a writer.
One last point, before we hear Lessing read. I’m recording this script in the ongoing middle of the pandemic; I imagine you’ll be listening to this, alas, during the same time. Beyond the enjoyments of Lessing’s story, listen for the instructions host Greg Gatenby offers at the end, about coffee and snacks and where to buy copies of Lessing’s books. I listened to this part with an unexpectedly heavy heart, and a deep longing for when we can do these things again, these things we have taken for granted for so long.
Doris Lessing (DL): This is a very much more hazardous occasion than you may think because I have never before read in public. This is my first time. All due to the the persuasive, Greg, who has said that everybody can. This is a story, a short story called 'The New Man.' Some of you may know that I was brought up in the old white Southern Rhodesia in a community of white farmers, and this is a story about how a new farmer gets accepted into the community. And I've seen this process several times as a child, and it was usually the same process. There were usually farmers that started with no money at all and some of them made it and some of them didn't. This was one who did.
DL: About three miles on the track to the station, a smaller overgrown road branched to the manager's house. This house had been built by the Rich Mitchell's for their manager. Then they decided to sell a third of their farm with a house ready for its owner. It stood empty a couple of years with sacks of grain and ox hides in it. The case had been discussed and adjudicated on the verandas of the district. No, Rich Mitchell was not right to sell that part of his farm which was badly watered and poorish soil except for a hundred acres or so. At the very least, he should have thrown in a couple of miles of his long flay with the lands adjacent to it.
DL: "No wonder Rich Mitchell was rich," they said. And when they met him, their voices had a calculated distance. "Sold your new farm yet, Mitch?" No, he hadn't sold it nor did he for one year and then another. "But the rich can afford to wait," as they said on the verandas. The farm was bought by a Mr. Royan, who'd already gone broke farming down [unintelligible] Way. The Grants went to visit Mrs. Grant in her new silk, Mr. Grant grumbling because it was a busy season. The small girl did not go. She refused. She wanted to stay in the kitchen with old Tom, the cook boy, where she was happy watching him make butter. That evening, listening with half an ear to the parents talk, it was evident that things weren't too good.
DL: Mr. Royan hadn't a penny of his own. He had bought the farm through the land bank and was working on an 800-pound loan. What it amounted to was this was a gamble on the first season. "It's all very well," said Mr. Grant, summing it all up with a reluctant critical note in his voice that meant he knew he would have to help Mr. Royan, would do so, but found it all too much. And sure enough, in the dry season, the Royan cattle were running on Grant land and using the Grant well. But Mr. Royan had become the new man in the manager's house. The first season wasn't too bad. So the small girl gathered from the talk on the verandas. Mr. Royan might make out after all. But he was very poor.
DL: Mrs. Grant, when they had too much cheese or butter or had baked, sent supplies over by the cook. In the second year, Mr. Grant lent Mr. Royan 200 pounds to tide him over. The small girl knew that the new neighbour belonged forever to that category of people who, when parting from the Grants, would wring their hands and say in a low half ashamed voice, "You've been very good to me and I'll never, never forget it." The first time she actually saw the new farmer, who never went anywhere, was when the Grants went into the station and gave Mr. Royan a lift. He couldn't afford a car yet. He stood on the track waiting for the Grants and behind him the road to his house was even more overgrown with bushes and grass, like a dry river bed between the trees. He sat in the back answering Mr. Grant's questions about how things were going.
DL: She didn't notice him much. Or rather refused to notice him, because she definitely did not like him, although he was nothing she had not known all her life. A tallish man dressed in bush khaki, blue eyes inflamed by the sun. He was burned. Not a healthy reddish brown but a mahogany color. Because he was never out of the sun, never stopped working. This color in a white man, the small girl already knew, meant a desperate struggling poverty and it usually proceeded going broke or getting very ill.
DL: But the reason she did not like him, or that he scared her, was the violence of his grievance. The hand which lay on the back of the car seat behind Mr. Grant trembled slightly. His voice trembled as he spoke of Rich Mitchell, his neighbour, who had a flay seven miles long and would neither sell nor rent him any of it. "It isn't right," he kept saying. "He doesn't make use of my end. Perhaps his cattle graze there a couple of weeks in the dry season but that's all."
DL: All this meant that his cattle would again be running with a Grants when the grass was low. More, he was appealing through Mr. Grant for justice to the unconstituted Council of Farmers who settled these matters on their verandas. That night, Mr. Grant said, "It's all very well," a good many times. Then he rang up Mr. Matthews, Glasgow Bob from the Glen Isle Farm, Mr. Painter, tobacco painter from Belleview and Mr. Van Doren, the Dutchman, from Blue Hills. Their farms adjoined Rich Mitchell's. Soon after the Grants went into the station again. At the last minute they had remembered to ring up and asked Mr. Royan if he wanted a lift. He did. It wasn't altogether convenient, particularly for the small girl, because two thirds of the backseat was packed to the roof with plough parts being sent into town for repair. And beside Mrs. Grant on the front seat was a great parcel full of dead chickens ready for sale to a hotel. "Oh, it's no bother," said Mr. Mrs. Grant to Mr. Royan, "The child can sit on your knee."
DL: The trouble was that the small girl was definitely not a child and she was pretty certain she was no longer a small girl either. For one thing, her breasts had begun to sprout, and while this caused her more embarrassment than pleasure, she handled her body in a proud gingerly way that made it impossible, as she would have done even a season before, to snuggle in onto the grownup's lap. So she got out of the car in a mood of fine, proud withdrawal, not looking at Mr. Royan as he fitted himself to the narrow space in the back seat. Then, with a clumsy fastidiousness, she perched on the very edge of his bare boney knees and supported herself with two hands on the back of the front seat. Mr. Royan's arms were about her waist as if she were indeed a child and they trembled, as she had known they would, as his voice still trembled talking about Rich Mitchell, but soon he stopped talking. The car sped forward through the heavy, red, dust-laden trees, rocking and bouncing over the dry ruts and she was jerked back to fit against the body of Mr. Royan, whose fierceness was that of a lonely tenderness, as she knew already, though never before in her life had she met it.
DL: She longed for the ride to be over, while she sat squeezed, pressed, suffering in the embrace Mr. Royan a couple of feet behind the Grants. She ignored, so far as was possible, with politeness, was stiff with resistance, looked at the backs of her parents' heads and marveled at their blindness. "If you only knew what your precious Mr. Royan was doing to your precious daughter." When it was time to come home from the station, she shed five years and became petulant and willful. She would sit on her mother's knee and not on Mr. Royan's. Because now the car was packed with groceries, it was a choice of one knee or the other. "Why my dear child?" said the fond Mrs. Grant, pleased at this rebirth of the charming child in her daughter. But the girl sat as stiffly on her mother's knee as she had on the man's, for she felt his eyes continually returning to her over her mother's shoulder, in need or in fear or in guilt. When the car stopped at the turn into the manager's house, she got off her mother's knee and would not look at Mr. Royan, who then did something really not allowable, not in the code, for he bent, squeezed her in his near black hairy arms and kissed her. Her mother laughed, gay and encouraging. Mr. Grant, however, said merely, "Goodbye Royan."
DL: ...as the torn, forlorn, fierce man, walked off to his house along the grass river road. The girl got into the back seat silent. Her mother had let her down, had let her new breasts down by that gay social laugh. As for her father, she looked at his profile, absorbed in the business of starting the car and setting it in motion, but the profile said nothing. She said resentful, "Who does he think he is kissing me?" And Mrs. Grant said briskly, "But my dear child, why ever not?" Mr. Grant gave his wife a quick, grave look but remained silent, and this comforted the girl, supported her. She thought about Mr. Royan or rather she felt him. She felt the trembling of his arms and felt as if he were calling to her. One hot morning, saying she was going for a walk, she set off to his house. When she got there, she was overheated and tired and needed a drink. But, of course, there was no one there. The house was two small rooms side by side under corrugated iron with a lean-to kitchen behind. In front was a narrow brick veranda with pillars. Plants stood in painted paraffin tins and they were dry and limp.
DL: She went into the first room. It had two old leather armchairs, a sideboard with a mirror that reflected trees and blue sky and long grass from the low window and an eating table. The second room had an iron bed and a chest of drawers. She looked long and thoughtful at the narrow bed and her heart was full of pity because of the lonely trembling in Mr. Royan's arms. She went into the tiny kitchen. It had an iron [unintelligible] stove where the fire was out. A wooden table had some cold meat on it with a piece of gauze over it. The meat smelt sourish. Flies buzzed. Up the legs of the table, small black ants trickled. There was no servant visible.
DL: After getting herself a glass of tepid tasting water from the filter, she walked very slowly through the house again, taking in everything, and then she went home. At supper, she said, casual, "I went to see Mr. Royan today." Her father looked quickly at her mother, who dropped her eyes and crumbled bread. That meant they had discussed the incident of the kiss. "How is he?" asked Mrs. Grant, casual and bright. "He wasn't there." Her father said nothing. Next day, she lapsed back into her private listening world. In the afternoon, she read, but the book seemed childish. She wept, enjoyably alone. At supper, she looked at her parents from a long way off and knew it was a different place where she'd never been before. They were smaller, definitely. She saw them clear, the handsome phlegmatic man at one end of the table, brown in his khaki, but not mahogany. He could afford not to spend every second of his waking hours in the sun. And at the other end, a brisk, airy, efficient woman in a tailored striped dress. The girl thought, "I came out of them." And shrank away in dislike from knowing how she had. She looked at these two strange people and felt Mr. Royan's arm call to her across three miles of [unintelligible]. Before she went to bed, she stood for a long time gazing at a small light from his house.
DL: Next morning, she went to his house again. She wore a new dress, which her mother had made. It was a childish dress that ignored her breasts, which is why she chose it. Not that she expected to see Mr. Royan. She wanted to see the small brick, ant and fly-ridden house, walk through it and come home again. When she got there, there was not a sign of anyone. She fetched water in a half paraffin tin from the kitchen and soaked the half-dead plants. Then she sat on the edge of the brick veranda with her feet in the hot dust. Quite soon, Mr. Royan came walking up through the trees from the lands. He saw her, but she couldn't make out what he thought. She said, girlish, "I've watered your plants for you." "The boy is supposed to water them," he said, sounding angry. He strolled on to the veranda, into the room behind and out at the back in three great paces, shouting, "Boy! Boy!" A shouting went on because the cook had gone to sleep under a tree. The girl watched the man run himself a glass of water from the filter, gulped it down, ran another, gulped that. He came to the veranda. Standing like a great black tower over here, he demanded, "Does your father know you're here?" And she shook her head primly, but she felt he was unfair. She would not have liked her father to know how his arms had trembled and pressed her in the car.
DL: He returned to the room and sat, knees falling apart, his arms limp, in one of the big ugly leather chairs. He looked at her steadily, his mouth tight. He had a thin mouth. The lips were burned and black from the sun and the cracks in them showed white and unhealthy. "Come here." He said softly. It was tentative, and she chose not to hear it and remained sitting with her back to him. Over her shoulder, she asked, one neighbour to another, "Have you fixed up your flay with Mr. Mitchell yet?" He sat looking at her, his head lowered. His eyes were really ugly, she thought, red with sun glare. He was an ugly man, she thought. For now, she was wishing, not that she had not come, but that he had not come. Then she could have walked secretly and delightfully through the house and gone secretly. And tomorrow, she could have come and watered his plants again. She imagined saying to him, meeting him by chance somewhere, "Guess who was watering your plants all that time?" "You're a pretty little girl." He said. He was grinning. The grin had no relation to the lonely hunger of his touch on her in the car. Nor was it a grin addressed to a pretty little girl. Far from it. She looked at the grin, repudiating it for her future, and was glad that she wore this full childish dress.
DL: "Come and sit on my knee." He tried again in the way people have been saying throughout her childhood, "Come and sit on my knee." She obligingly went like a small girl and balanced herself on a knee that felt all bone under her. His hands came out and gripped her thin arms. His face changed from the ugly grin to the look of lonely hunger. She was sitting upright, using her feet as braces on the floor to prevent herself being pulled into the trembling man's body. Unable to pull her, he leaned his face against her neck so that she felt his eyelashes and eyebrows hairy on her skin and he muttered, "Maureen, Maureen, Maureen my love." She stood up smoothing down her silly dress. He opened her eyes, sat still, hand on his knees. His mouth was half open. He breathed irregularly and his eyes stared not at her, but the brick floor where tiny black ants trickled. She sat herself on the chair opposite, tucking her dress well in around her legs. In the silence, the roof cracked suddenly overhead from the heat. There was the sound of a car on the main road, half a mile off. The car came nearer. Neither the girl nor the man moved. Their eyes met from time to time, frowning and serious, then moved away to the ants, to the window to anywhere.
DL: He still breathed fast. She was full of revulsion against his body, yet she remembered the heat of his face, the touch of his lashes on her neck and his loneliness broke through her dislike of him, so that she longed to assuage him. The car stopped outside the house and she saw, without surprise, that it was her father.
DL: She remained where she was as Mr. Grant stepped out of the car and came in. His eyes narrowed because of a glare and heat under the iron roof. He nodded at his daughter and said, "How do you do, Royan?" There being only two chairs, the men were standing, but the girl knew what she had to do, so she went out on to the veranda and sat on the hot, rough brick, spreading her blue skirts wide so that air could come between them. Now the two men were sitting in the chairs. "Like some tea, Mr. Grant?" "I could do with a cup." Mr. Royan shouted, "Tea!" and a shout came back from the kitchen. The girl could hear the iron stove being banged and blown into heat. It was nearly mid-day, and she wondered what Mr. Royan would have for lunch. That rancid beef? She thought, if I were Maureen, I wouldn't leave him alone, I'd look after him. I suppose she's some silly woman in an office in the town. Perhaps since he loved Maureen, she became her and heard his voice saying, Maureen, Maureen my love.
DL: Simultaneously, she held her thin brown arms into the sun, and felt how they were a hard, dark, dry brown, and felt the flesh melting off hard, lank bones. Her father said, "I spoke to the bacco painter last night on the telephone. And he said he thinks Rich Mitchell might very well be in a different frame of mind by now, he's had a couple of good seasons." "If a couple of good seasons could make any difference to Mr. Mitchell," came Mr. Royan's hot resentful voice. "But thank you Mr. Grant, thank you." "He's close," said her father, "Near, canny, careful. Those north country people are you know." He laughed. Mr. Royan laughed too after a pause because he was a Dutchman and had to work out the unfamiliar phrase north country. Mr. Grant said, "If I were you, I'd get the whole of the lands on either side of the flay under mealies the first season. Rich has never had it under cultivation and the soil goes 16 bags to the acre for the first couple of seasons." "Yes, I've been thinking that that's what I should do." She heard the sounds of tea being brought in.
DL: Mr. Royan said to her through the door, "Like a cup?" But she shook her head. She was thinking that if she were Maureen, she'd fix up the house for him. Her father's next remark was therefore no surprise to her. "Thinking of getting married, Royan?" He said bitterly, "Take a look at this house Mr. Grant." "Well, you could build on a couple of rooms for about 30 pounds, I reckon. I'll lend you my building boy and a wife will get it spic and span in no time." Soon the two men came out and Mr. Royan stood on the veranda as she and her father got into the car and drove off. She waved at him politely with a polite smile. She waited for her father to say something, but although he gave her several doubtful looks, he did not. So she said, "Mr. Royan's in love with a girl called Maureen." "Did he say so?" "Yes, he did." "Well," he said, talking to her as was his habit, one grown person to another, "I'd say it was time he got married." "Yes." "Everything all right?" He inquired, having worked out exactly the right words to use. "Yes, thank you." "Good."
DL: That season, Rich Mitchell leased a couple of miles of his big flay to Mr. Royan with a promise of sale later. Tobacco Painter's wife got a governess from England called Miss Betty Blunt, and almost at once, Mr. Royan and she were engaged. Mrs. Painter complained that she could never keep a governess longer than a couple of months, they always got married. But she couldn't have been too angry about it because she laid on a big wedding for them and all the district was there. The girl was asked if she would be a bridesmaid, but she very politely refused. On the track to the station, there was a new sign post pointing along a well-used road which said, "For the big flay farm, see Royan."
DL: Now this is a very short story called “Homage for Isaac Babel,” and it's extremely autobiographical because it all happened exactly like this. “The day I had promised to take Catherine down to visit my young friend Phillip at his school in the country, we were to leave at eleven, but she arrived at nine. Her blue dress was new, and so were her fashionable shoes. Her hair had just been done and she looked more than ever like a pink and gold Renoir girl who expects everything from life. Catherine lives in a white house overlooking the sweeping brown tithes of the river. She helped me clean up my flat with a devotion which said that she felt small flats were altogether more romantic than large houses. We drank tea, and we talked mainly about Phillip who, being 15, has pure stern tastes in everything from food to music. Catherine looked at the books lying around his room and asked if she might borrow the stories of Isaac Babel to read on the train. Catherine is 13. I suggested she might find them difficult, but she said, "Phillip reads them doesn't he?"
DL: During the journey, I read newspapers and watched her pretty frowning face as she turned the pages of Babel for she was determined to let nothing get between her and her ambition to be worthy of Phillip. At the school, which is charming, civilized and expensive, the two children walked together across green fields, and I followed, seeing how the sun gilded their bright friendly heads turned towards each other as they talked. In Catherine's left hand she carried the stories of Issac Babel. After lunch we went to the pictures. Phillip allowed it to be seen that he thought going to the pictures just for the fun of it was not worthy of intelligent people, but he made the concession for our sakes.
DL: For his sake, we chose the more serious of the two films that were showing in the little town. It was about a good priest who helped criminals in New York. [laughter] His goodness, however, was not enough to prevent one of them from being sent to the gas chamber. And Phillip and I waited with Catherine in the dark until she'd stopped crying and could face the light of a golden evening. [laughter] At the entrance of the cinema, the doorman was lying in wait for anyone who had red eyes. Grasping Catherine by her suffering arm, he said bitterly, "Yes, why are you crying? He had to be punished for his crime didn't he?"
DL: Catherine stared at him, incredulous. Phillip rescued her by saying with disdain, "Some people don't know right from wrong, even when it's demonstrated to them." [laughter] The doorman turned his attention to the next red eyed emerger from the dark and we went on together into the station, the children silent because of the cruelty of the world. "Finally," Catherine said, her eyes wet again, "Well, I think it's all absolutely beastly, and I can't bear to think about it." And Phillip said, "But we've got to think about it, don't you see? Because if we don't, it'll just go on and on and on, don't you see?" In the train going back to London, I sat beside Catherine. She had the stories open in front of her, but she said, "Phillip's awfully lucky, I wish I went to that school. Did you notice that girl who said hello to him in the garden? They must be great friends. I wish my mother would let me have a dress like that, it's not fair." "I thought it was too old for her," I said.
DL: "Oh, did you?" Soon she bent her head again over the book but almost at once lifted it to say, "Is he a very famous writer?" I said, "He's a marvelous writer, brilliant, one of the very best. Why?" "Well, for one thing, he's so simple. Look how few words he uses and how strong his stories are." "Oh I see. Do you know him, does he live in London?" "Oh no, he's dead." "Oh, then why did you? I thought he was alive the way you talked." "Well, I'm sorry I suppose I wasn't thinking of him as dead." "Well, when did he die?" "He was murdered about 20 years ago, I suppose." "20 years?" She said. Her hands began the movement to pushing the book over to me, but then relaxed. "I'll be 14 in November," she stated, sounding threatened while her eyes challenged me. I found it hard to express my need to apologize, but before I could speak she said, patiently attentive again, "You said he was murdered?" "Yes." "I expect the person who murdered him felt sorry when he discovered he had murdered a famous writer." [laughter] "Well, yes, I expect so." "Was he old when he was murdered?" "Well, no, quite young, really." "Well, that was bad luck wasn't it?" [laughter] "Well, I suppose it was bad luck," I said.
DL: "Which do you think is a very best story here? I mean, in your honest opinion, the very, very best one?" So I chose a story about killing the goose. She read it slowly while I sat waiting, wishing to take it from her, wishing to protect this charming person from Isaac Babel. When she had finished she said, "Well, some of it I don't understand, he has got a funny way of looking at things. Why should a man's leg in boot look like... Boots look like girls?" She finally pushed the book over at me and said, "Well, I think it's all morbid." "But you have to understand the kind of life he had," I said. "First, he was a Jew in Russia and that was bad enough, then his experience was all revolution and Civil War and... "
DL: But I could see these words bouncing off the clear glass of her fiercely denying gaze, and I said, "Look Catherine, why don't you try again when you're older, perhaps you'd like him better then?" She said gratefully, "Well, perhaps, that would be best. After all Phillip is two years older than me isn't he?" A week later, I got a letter from Catherine. "Thank you very much for being kind enough to take me to visit Phillip at his school. It was the most lovely day in my whole life. I'm extremely grateful to you for taking me. I have been thinking about The Hoodlum Priest, that was a film which demonstrated to me beyond any shadow of doubt that capital punishment is a wicked thing. And I shall never forget what I learned that afternoon, and the lessons of it will be all my life. I have been meditating about what you said about Isaac Babel, the famed Russian short story writer. And I now see that the constant simplicity of his style is what makes him, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the great writer that he is. And now in my school compositions, I'm endeavoring to emulate him.
DL: "So as to learn the conscious simplicity which is the only basis for a really brilliant writing style. Love, Catherine." "PS. Has Philip said anything about my party? I wrote, but he hasn't answered. Please find out if he's coming or if he just forgot to answer my letter. I hope he comes because sometimes I fear I shall die if he doesn't." "PPS. Please don't tell him I said anything, because I should die if he knew. Love, Catherine."
DL: I thought you might be interested to hear a small story about this story, about which illustrates the problems. I won't be one second.
DL: Which illustrates the problems of writers with translators. There was a certain writer... Critic from Iran, who wrote to me, this was when the Shah was still alive, said he was coming to London 'cause he had translated some of my stories. I knew nothing about this and he arrived, and I said, "What stories?" And one of them was this story and I was amazed, I thought, "What can this story have to say to very poor people in Iran?" Because that was what his magazine was designed to reach. I said, "Why this story of all the stories I'd written?" And he said, "Well, you have to understand," he said. "That what our readers need is a very strong, passionate message about how to improve life and how to go forwards to a golden horizon." [laughter] I said, "Look, are we talking about the same story?" [laughter] He said, "But there's this wonderful message at the end about about progress." I said, "Look, I've never... " He said, "But look, I added a paragraph," he said, "at the end." [laughter] He said, "You would love that paragraph." [laughter] So you see, problems of a writer.
Greg Gatenby (GG): Doris Lessing. When we began negotiating the time of arrival or the time for this reading, Doris initially was quite insistent that readings by authors tended to be quite boring, and then I mentioned to her that I thought that was a myth put about by unemployed actors. [laughter] And that really, that I had faith that she could do a good job, and I think we've had my faith restored about authors reading their work.
GG: However, we did come to a compromise in that she believes that question and answer periods are the most interesting portion of a reading. And so, in the second set, I've promised her that our audience ask the most prescient, difficult questions possible. [chuckle] And I've warned her that somebody's bound to ask, "What is the square root of 139?" And expect an answer. So, during this intermission, I invite you to contemplate some questions. Obviously, we can't hear from 500 people, we'll try and take them as fairly as we can. But we are taking questions in the second set for about 20 minutes, so think of some goodies and don't ask about semicolons in page 174. Also, during the intermission you may want to drop by, in fact we invite you to drop by the book table set up by Writers and Company on Yonge Street. They've set up a wonderful table at the back here. I think they have almost every book in paperback and hardback, which is still in print, by Doris Lessing. Please hang on to your ticket stubs, there are a lot of people who wanna come back in and we can only let those back in who have their ticket stubs. Coffee, food, and drinks can be found either in the arcade, about halfway down the building or at the very end of the building. We'll see you back here in about 15 minutes.
RANDY: Doris Lessing was born in Iran, in 1919, to British parents, and moved as a child to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Her experiences of witnessing racism and segregation from up close informed her imaginative and intellectual commitment to pursue justice and equality thereafter. She spent a few years in a convent school, during which time she converted to Catholicism before in turn declaring herself an atheist, and otherwise had little in the way of formal schooling. She married Frank Wisdom but left him, and their two children, to pursue what she described as a “free life” that led in turn to her marrying Gottfried Anton Nicolai Lessing, a German Communist, in 1943. They had a son and divorced after the war and Lessing settled in England, in 1949. Her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was published the following year, and thereafter she published dozens of works, ranging from the semi-autobiographical to science fiction, including, most notably, The Golden Notebook. Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature at the age of 87, making her the oldest recipient ever, and she died in 2013 at the age of 94.
This audio recording of Doris Lessing, recorded on stage at Harbourfront Reading Series in 1984, is used with the kind permission of The Doris Lessing Literary Will Trust. as well as the Toronto International Festival of Authors. And, as always, thanks to TIFA, the Toronto International Festival of Authors, for allowing us access to their archives. Find out more at FestivalOfAuthors.ca.
Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is a year-long podcast series that celebrates 40 years of the Toronto International Festival of Authors. It's produced by the Toronto Public Library. The Executive Producer is Gregory McCormick. This episode was produced by Gregory McCormick and me, Randy Boyagoda, with technical support from George Panayotou and Michelle De Marco, marketing support from Tanya Oleksuik, and research support from Marcella van Run.
For more about Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA, visit writersoffthepage.ca where you will find links to the books mentioned in each episode and links to other relevant materials in TPL’s collections. For all of Toronto Public Library's podcasts series, check out tpl.ca/podcasts.
Music is by YUKA.
I'm Randy Boyagoda and we'll be back soon with another episode of Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA.