Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing on Books and War

In her latest book, "Alfred and Emily" (Harper), Nobel laureate Doris Lessing dissects the lives of her parents and the horrific legacy the first world war left on their existence. Throughout a prolific career spanning more than 50 years, Lessing has never hesitated to speak her mind. Campaigning against nuclear arms and apartheid got her banned from South Africa and her native Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for many years. Her work has examined the mental and societal decline of our times, the female condition, racial injustice and the clash of cultures. Her latest book, which she says will be her last, is a denouncement of war. Now 88, she is the oldest person to have received the Nobel Prize for literature. She spoke by phone to NEWSWEEK's Amber Haq about her writing, her activism and her love of literature. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: In "Alfred and Emily" you re-imagine the lives of your parents, as if the first world war had never occurred. What impelled you to do this?
Doris Lessing:
Time and distance from the first and second world wars doesn't seem to lessen their horrors. I was thinking about my parents as I do sometimes. If there had never been a first world war they would have lived different lives and would have been very different people.

It is a very antiwar book. Is that intentional?
I had no idea when I was writing that it was such an antiwar book, but of course now I see it, and it is what I feel. I feel all kind of terrible despair about the wars--Iraq, Afghanistan. I'm talking about [Tony] Blair here--without any knowledge of what war is like, from any kind of experience, he just figured he'd have a war and lied to get his way. To me it is astounding that this can happen, when there is so much evidence, so many books written, so many poems written about what war is really like.

Your memories of childhood in Rhodesia feature heavily in your work. What are your feelings about Zimbabwe's political situation today?
The political degradation just goes on and on. I can't imagine why somebody hasn't assassinated Mugabe--such a wicked man, and he's still alive. The trouble is, you see, he's got a gang [of] people like himself who are just as bad as he is. When people say, "When we get rid of Mugabe …" you have to ask, "OK, what are you going to do about the cronies?" They are just as bad, and one of them will be in. It's very easy to destroy something, but it's not so easy to put back something. I would never have believed that I would ever think like this, but now when I look back, I take it for granted that the whites suppressing the blacks was a pretty horrible thing, but I also think of the good things, like the railways and the post offices--the infrastructure, which is now destroyed. I have one friend who is left there. When I ring him up on a Sunday he will tell me, "We haven't had any power in a week, we haven't had any water in a week." Nothing works.

Looking back, how have things changed in the writing and reading world?
When I started, there were no big interviews, no television, no profiles and all that. The publishers were quite shockingly uncommercial, but they did look after their writers. If you are a young writer today, it's very hard. The joke is you have a tough time unless you are a pretty girl with big boobs. If you're a real writer, you'll go on chugging at it and maybe you'll have some luck. Nowadays writers look forward to big advances, parties and champagne. They look forward to a literary life, which to us then was quite incredible. We were very high-minded; we'd write because it was our vocation, and we did it as well as we could. Not one person had any money in those days. We weren't thinking all the time of the rewards for writing--and I personally think that is better. For one thing there was never any temptation to alter what you're going to write because you might get a better review if you say this or that.

How will the novel evolve in the future?
We have to think that perhaps the novel might vanish in its present form altogether. Young people seem hardly to read them. Serious novels have always been read by a minority, always. So, that won't change. There are people who care quite passionately about literature. What society doesn't realize is that in the past, ordinary people respected learning. They respected books, and they don't now, or not very much. That whole respect for serious literature and learning has disappeared. It's no good pretending it hasn't because you just talk to any young person, and they will be literarily ignorant. This is not a good soil for producing literature.

Is a society that doesn't read a dangerous place?
I think so. For one thing it makes people very ignorant. You see, when it comes to people of my age, if you talk to someone who has had anything like the same experience, reading and so on, and contrast that with talking to a young person who hasn't, it's like talking to a different kind of creature. You talk to someone with your kind of experience, and you share a language and references, you talk in a completely different way--and I don't mean that you are using more advanced language. This human need to think and understand, which has in the past been feed by books, literature and learning, it will prevail. At the moment though I can't foresee which form it will come out in.

But it will come out?
Yes it will.

Is this really your last book?
Well, I don't have any energy. You know people tend to start laughing when I say that. I've had to do an awful lot of interviews and things when I won the Nobel. It takes up so much time and effort and energy. People will soon lose interest in me from that point of view. You see, you haven't reached that stage when your energy becomes a bit dicey. Mine is very narrow, so we will have to see. At the moment I don't write at all.

And do you miss it?
Well, I have some nice ideas I wouldn't mind writing, but God knows when.