The Interview: IN FULL BLOOM

Doris Lessing, the grande dame of English letters, has published close to 50 books in 60 years - and has just produced yet another. Will Self was daunted
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SHE LET me in electrically, after confirming my identity over the intercom. She was standing in the shadows at the top of the stairs as I trudged up. The tall Victorian house is at the summit of a steep hill which surmounts this zone of suburban hinterland, so the whole business of attaining her company felt like an ascent towards an eminence, even though she lives between Kilburn and West Hampstead, within dull plodding distance of Shoot Up Hill. Later, when we were chatting over a shared Diet Coke, I idly remarked on the ironies of the road's name, considering that this has always been an area rich - if you can say such a thing - in heroin dealers. She giggled indulgently, "It's certainly rich in the IRA - but I didn't know that."

Not that she's a young ingenue just in from the sticks. She's done mescaline with no lasting ill-effects, although she says that her mate Naomi was tormented with acid flashbacks for an entire year: "She used to see people's heads coming off and blood pouring out of their necks." And she's tasted the sexual delights of the big city: affairs with wild writers, one-night-stands with black political exiles, and several adulterous liaisons. Her house is surprisingly shabby for a wealthy woman; there's a pervasive catty ambience - bowls of food on the floor, filigrees of fur on the worn nap of the carpets and the upholstery. There are plenty of pictures, some of cats, an abundance of pot plants, and an assortment of mismatched occasional tables together with frequently used chairs. All in all, it's an unpretentious, bohemian environment.

Anyway, she ushered me into the living room and settled me on a low divan. She's a rearview-mirror dingle-dangle of a woman, feline, coiled with a dancer's presence. She has cheekbones to die for - and she knows it. She's a woman, I sensed immediately, whose beauty has always allowed her an edge in life, especially because it is allied to such a ferocious, autodidactic intelligence. She is 80 years old this year. She is Doris Lessing, and her unfortunate acidhead pal was the late Naomi Mitchison.

Some critics ascribe to Lessing the novelist not so much seer-like, as godlike, qualities. I've seen it proposed that the modern world appears the way it does because Lessing wrote it that way - as if she were a Dreamtime heroine, singing up an outback full of the liberal intelligentsia. I'd be more inclined to the view that the reason the world so often resembles a Doris Lessing novel is that the people who write novels have - almost osmotically - absorbed at least two or three of hers.

Not me though. I read The Grass is Singing about 20 years ago - and thoroughly enjoyed it - but the rest of Lessing was off-limits. The Golden Notebook stood sentinel; a great oppressive dolmen of a novel barring the way into my mother's literary realm. Yup, Lessing was one of my mother's writers, seriously concerned with the serious lives of serious women. This was not brain fare for growing boys. That's my defence, at least, and so it was that, charged with interviewing this fount of wisdom, I was faced with the daunting task of breasting the great torrent of verbiage which has poured from her pen over the last 60-odd years.

Mara and Dann, the pretext for our encounter, is her 22nd novel. She has also written 11 collections of short stories, three plays, the libretto for an opera and eight non-fiction works. Since 1992 we've also been inundated with 800 pages of densely plotted - as well as argued - autobiography; and while I'm belabouring her labours, it's worth mentioning that as long ago as 1971, when she wrote a new preface to The Golden Notebook, Lessing was casually referring to the myriad doctoral theses and dissertations which were being written about that text alone. One is unkindly reminded of the relentless autodidact's credo: I've suffered for my learning - and now it's your turn.

On surveying the great dappled veldt of Lessing's prose, what came to mind was Michael Holroyd's anguish when, after being approached by the Society of Authors to become Shaw's official biographer, he calculated that, since Shaw had written some 4,000 words a day for publication alone (and remember all those letters), he would be hard-pushed to read everything Shaw had written within the rest of his own lifetime - let alone write the biography.

Of course, it transpired that Holroyd - a friend of Lessing's - is to be her official biographer too. When I expressed some merriment at the notion of Holroyd now sacrificing the remaining years of his life on the bulky altar of Doris's oeuvre, she said snappishly, "It gets me out of all the other biographers pursuing me - but he's not working on it now." At the time I thought she was facetiously implying that I'd expected to see him beavering away in the corner, taking more thorough notes than myself, but on reflection I realised she was just saying: I'm not dead yet.

I know she's supposed to be an oracular - even intimidating - presence, this grande dame of English letters, but throughout the two hours we spent together I couldn't help teasing her about her profligacy with the typewriter and her willingness to go on promoting her work. Mine was one of three scheduled interviews, and she was due to do several public events for the new book. Surely, I asked, she needn't engage with the tedious rondo of publicity at her age, and with her status? "I do it because of the pressure I'm under - it really is enormous." Pressure? I queried. Couldn't she tell them to go hang? "No, but these are personal friends and I very much like Eddie Bell" - her publisher at HarperCollins - "and you know it does sell books."

This sounded more plausible, and Lessing enlarged on the importance of promoting books with a small encomium for Finland: "Once I went to Finland, and this is very striking. I only spent four days there ... I did television, radio and about three interviews. The agent then rang to say all my out- of-print books were back in print and I'd sold the last two books. All that for four days' work, besides the fact that Finland's quite a nice place to visit ... but don't go when all the midges are about. Go in winter." Ah! Gold dust to a youngish writer. I was touched by the advice and able to forbear from pointing out that she had said earlier, "I don't approve of any of it. I haven't for 20 years. For 10 years I wouldn't do anything ... but the pressures are so enormous. And there are positive aspects ... there are nice people on the circuit. But the whole thing is ridiculous, because it has nothing whatsoever to do with literature."

And, of course, she has also expressed these sentiments in print - but damn it all! She can be allowed the wise luxury of the elderly: a generous allowance of total ambivalence, and even inconsistency. Anyway, such antinomies are the hallmark of the artist, and Lessing's are deliciously pronounced. What else to say of a woman who has quietly professed a belief in Sufi mysticism for 40 years, while retaining a tight grip on the steering wheel of an ego the size of a fire engine? When I began to inveigh against the pushy director of a prominent literary festival, she contented herself with quietly remarking, "He's not the most loveable man in the world." But when I replied that he was "an oleaginous creep", she giggled, "Yes he is."

On the whole she giggled along with whatever outrageousness I came up with, but despite this I felt cowed in the presence of this wise woman. I could understand only too well that from the perspective of 80 years, two marriages, 50 books, three children, umpteen lovers and five continents, the dialogue with me was hardly going to enlarge her understanding of either the world or herself.

Indeed, while we were conversing I had the distinct impression that my voice was a Pinky and Perky falsetto, and that from her gerontocratic perspective the entire sojourn was a video loop on fast-forward. Which is why, when I played the tape back, I was amazed to discover how high-pitched she sounded, especially in contrast with my own basso rumblings. The following exchanges, annotated with my anxieties, will give you a flavour of her style. I asked her what the new book was about and she came back with: "Do you like it or do you not? You don't have to say if you don't like it." I spluttered that I'd enjoyed it - which was the truth - but that I'd wished I'd had longer to spend on it. It's a picaresque novel and should really be read at the pace of the journey it describes.

This answer didn't satisfy her. "Did you enjoy it at all, or not?" she reiterated, and I countered by asking, "What's it about?" Always a good stalling question for a writer.

"It's about two orphans, it's a classic adventure story, and you have to have your protagonists severely disadvantaged and poor and captive and get themselves out of it, and to encourage the plot you have to have a very strong villain and you have to have nice people and they have to have a lot of adventures. And you know what, I have never enjoyed anything more."

"More than any of your other books?" This, I think, was a smart enquiry as well - opening things out a bit.

"Yes, that's how it works usually ... well you know that." Aaargh! A drop lob of a reply: we're both writers so there's nothing more to say except: "I'm afraid I do."

"Well, there you are."

Feeling like Homer Simpson being set to rights by Bart, aged 80, I press on: "Do you enjoy writing about invented worlds, I mean you've done it a lot, in the novel cycle of the Seventies and Eighties?" I do hope it was those decades.

"Canopus, you mean?"

"Exactly." Phew!

"Well, every one of those books is completely different."

"Of course, of course." Doh.

"But I do enjoy it ..." (A significant pause.) "The thing is, for some mysterious reason and I don't know why, the formula - you know, the idea of the archives of Canopus - just released me. It was like having a teacher. I mean I didn't have that idea until after the first one - which was fortunate, but then ... well, it generated all sorts of other ideas ... But I enjoyed writing this one [Mara and Dann]. I started off with this drought which I was actually watching in Africa, four years ago, when animals were dying and trees were dying and the desperation of the people... And I spent time in a training college for women, getting up at three in the morning to walk miles and come back with a can of water which would be drinking water and cooking water. Don't talk about washing - they couldn't. So, this is realism. This is realistic as far as I'm concerned; I saw it."

The novel certainly is elegantly written, and if it suffers from some of the endemic problems of "imagined-worlds" fiction - metaphors and similes must be internally referential, the timelessness of it all drags un petit peu - then this is more than compensated for by the sense of entering a strange hypnogogic realm. There isn't the slightest whiff of the author in winter about this: it's vigorous stuff, an eco-fable for the near future which is right now. Lessing herself is as alive to the possibility of criticism as she must have been for all her writing life (show me a writer who says she doesn't care and I'll show you a liar). "People will say it's a book for adolescents - but I don't mind. I was staying at a house recently where there was an adolescent boy, and he picked it up and read it straight through without stopping. Took him three days."

Hmm, a mere three days. I'd notched up at least twice that duration and still managed to make only a slight dent in the Fifty. In fact, I'd been forced to sub-contract some reading to trusted friends. The critic and writer Cressida Connolly assayed Love Again, Lessing's penultimate novel, for me. "Embarrassing" was her conclusion. "The love affair between the older woman and the younger man was extraordinarily adolescent; there was little sense of it being a meeting between actual human beings. Rather the characters seemed entire projections, each on to the other."

Still, perhaps it pays to retain such an "adolescent" perspective? Certainly it enables Lessing to access in Mara and Dann feelings which clearly derive from her own relationship with her younger brother, growing up in the Twenties and Thirties in the South Rhodesian bush. To me she said: "I absolutely adored my little brother, he was probably the great passion of my life. I'm not saying what it was like when he was grown up, let's leave a shroud over that one, but I absolutely adored him." There are quite a few such shrouds in Lessing's life. One must be thrown over her abandonment of her two older children: "You don't mention the children from your first marriage in your autobiography."

"The thing was I had very little to do with them. At the time I wrote the first volume my son John was alive. It's a very touchy subject. I wrote about it in the second volume." No she didn't - or at least not in any depth. But I'm not in the business of psycho-journalising Lessing - she deserves better than that.

And as for the shroud that gets thrown over the Sixties, when, as she put it herself, "I proved my rapport with the times by becoming a housemother for adolescents or young adults who either lived [with me] or came and went. All of them were in some kind of trouble: were `disturbed', were being seduced by drugs, were alcoholic, were having serious breakdowns, were known to the police." At least one of these former adolescents is an acquaintance of mine, and the justness and acuity of Lessing's silence on the matter is a fair testimony to her sincerity.

As for the adored younger brother: "When I was having psychotherapy - it certainly wasn't analysis - all those years ago, Mrs Sussman kept gently suggesting that I should consider my relationship with him."

"Is he still alive?"

"No, he died of a heart attack, unnecessarily. I mean he wouldn't have died here, where there are nice ambulances. He died on a hot day on the way to Johannesburg. My son John died of a heart attack the day before the drought broke. If he'd managed to stay alive another day he'd be alive now - I'm sure of it. The drought was actually killing him ... because he cared passionately for the animals and birds..."

John was Lessing's oldest child, and for a few moments I was silenced by contemplating the immemorial prospect of surviving your own children. It was at this point in our conversation that her youngest son, Peter, now a middle-aged man, wandered into the room to say he was "going for a walk in the park." He is a chunkily nervous presence with tape on his NHS glasses, and were I that psycho- journalist I might have used this interlude as an opportunity to "rip away the decent draperies", as De Quincey would have put it, and inquire into whether or not his presence - still in her home - was a function of the Sixties, or a compensation for those earlier abandonments. But in the event it was my turn to make with the shroud.

Instead the teasing went on until I wrung from her the admission that "It's too many; it would've been enough simply to have written Gogol's The Overcoat." But that being noted, she went on: "I can't stop writing - if I like something I look into it." This is the rampant generalism of the true writer, who has no interests but interest itself. "And if I don't write for a while I get nervous and tetchy." Once again a syndrome I recognise in myself: the need to write in order to properly interface with the world; the work conceived of as a kind of superego. Though I don't imagine that I will be thinking of writing a sequel to one of my earlier novels at the age of 80. Lessing is, to her book The Fifth Child.

She shows marvellous commitment to the sheer act of writing itself if she believes, as she stated to me, that: "Nobody alive today can write with the distinction of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Proust wouldn't be published now. The global consciousness isn't concentrated enough." Proust, clearly a great love of Lessing's, figures prominently in her autobiography as well. Such is the quotidian character of her references to him and his work that one could be forgiven for thinking they might have breakfasted together that very morning, shortly before she sat down to write.

But this is the cheap cynicism of the young-ish. When I told her that I couldn't abide the theatre - which she adores - because I cannot suspend disbelief, so aware am I during an average West End production that Lady Macbeth was at Rada not so long ago, she chided me with "inverted snobbery". A fair point and an acute one. Snobbery of any kind is not something which Lessing herself can be accused of, and despite her forceful recantation of her early Marxist adherence, she has continued to put her shoulder to the common weal (and "common" is the operative word here) with a vigour which exposes us moderns for the decadent epigones we are. One of her important consistencies has been her generosity of spirit: the encouragement she has given to younger writers is unusual (contrary to her own view). She wouldn't dream of accepting any "honours" (Hooray!) and when I asked her if she'd voted in the last election for the celebrated Big Ciabatta, she exclaimed, "Good God no!"

After a couple of hours, when the longueurs were getting ominously longer, and her eyelids were beginning to droop a little, I took this as a subtly regal indication and announced that I would leave. For someone staring down the wrong end of a telescope, she had evinced considerable forbearance as I piped my idiotic queries. She pressed on me a couple more of her books - "They're only very short ones," she giggled - and then I was making the descent down from the heights of her eminence to the base camp of my own life. Driving back across town I felt slightly cheated, as one always does when meeting someone one truly admires.

You always want more than you can get from such encounters - that's life. But when I played back the tapes and examined the notes I was amazed by the great breadth of subjects we had in fact covered. All the way from the politics of Zimbabwe: "Mugabe's completely mad of course, everyone knows it. He'd never go anywhere without an enormous motor cavalcade - a sure sign of paranoia." To the politics of America: "I think [Clinton's] an idiot, I can't understand how he could be so silly. And as for Monica Lewinsky and he playing these little sex games like a couple of kids in a locker room, it is absolutely pathetic." That was just the politics. She also discoursed on education, race, friendship, mass psychosis and new technology. A truly amazing woman. I feel certain she must have a book in her - and maybe even another 50.

`Mara and Dann' (Flamingo, pounds 16.99) is published on 6 April

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