Always a prolific writer, she clocked up over fifty books that included short stories, memoir, non-fiction, plays, essays and poetry. But she is best known, and loved, as a daring novelist who experimented with a variety of forms including realism, fantasy, science fiction, space fiction and even the paranormal.
Over her long life, she explored deeply a range of concepts and philosophies that included communism, socialism, psychology and psychoanalysis, Sufism and feminism. Attempts were made to brand her with descriptions which included eccentric, but she steadfastly rejected the labels with which people tried to saddle her.
Her writing reflects her many enthusiasms and passions; her versatility and depth won her a large following of dedicated readers, of which I am one.
One of Lessing’s perhaps less critically acclaimed novels, The Summer before the Dark, (1973), deeply affected my own life and writing. I still have the paperback copy, bought many years ago, for which I paid $2.95. Like most of the Lessing books on my shelves, it is well-loved – battered even. Today, when I picked it up, it fell apart in my hands. I remembered once before, in a hurry, crudely repairing it by pouring glue down the spine and pressing the pages into the mess.
Almost forty years ago, when I was newly divorced and struggling to support six children financially and emotionally, this book burst upon my consciousness with the force of a meteor. Until I read it, I had been only vaguely aware that a life different from the one I was living could be possible. Gender politics and feminism were for me still vague, unexplored notions.
The Summer before the Dark tells the story of a middle-aged woman, Kate Brown, who has been an exemplary wife and mother. With marriage and motherhood, she has acquired many virtues including adaptability to others needs and wants. But when the novel opens, her grown children and successful husband all have exciting engagements, and she will be home alone for months. She embarks on a summer of exploration, freedom and self-discovery.
The novel can be enjoyed on many levels, but Lessing uses a number of devices which add layers and depth to the story. Over the summer, Kate has seven dreams of a large, black, wounded seal which she must carry over rocks to water. These psychoanalytic sequences that involve Kate’s personal bête noir (her helplessness and vulnerability) refer obliquely to the seven seals of the Apocalypse.
Lessing not only references the Bible, but also TS Elliot’s poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi’. In the poem, one of the travellers, now an old man, reflects on the difficult journey he undertook to see the Child Jesus in Bethlehem. This man, like the heroine of The Summer before the Dark, was also in transition between one life and a new. He reflects on what he has seen on the journey – a white horse and a black one; men under the vines betting with thirty pieces of silver and three trees on a hillside, all images from the Book of Revelation.
What they have seen and experienced will be but faint memories when the travellers return home. But they are profoundly changed and so was I when I first read this book.
Thank you, Doris Lessing – an amazing woman and writer.