Lessing was too ill to travel to the Swedish capital to give Friday’s lecture in person. Her speech, “On not winning the Nobel Prize,” was delivered by her publisher, Nicholas Pearson.
Images of people hungry for both food and knowledge, reminiscent of her childhood in Zimbabwe, were peppered throughout the lecture, speaking to the great untapped literary potential of “unheard voices” in Africa and other developing countries. Great writers may still be produced out of material poverty, but they must come from “houses with books.” Lessing herself, as she describes in her 1994 autobiography, Under My Skin, comes from “a mud hut, but full of books.”
Although Lessing only had formal education until the age of 14, her mother ordered books from England that were the “joy of [her] young life.” She was born in 1919 to British parents in Persia, and moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1925, where she experienced firsthand the racial exploitation of white colonial culture.
Race and empire are themes frequently explored by Lessing. In her debut novel, The Grass is Singing (1950), she examines the relationship between a white farmer’s wife and her black servant. A strident critic of apartheid in South Africa and racism in Southern Rhodesia, Lessing was also banned for many years from visiting either country.
Lessing’s lecture opens with a description of a school in northwestern Zimbabwe, where she is visiting a friend, a teacher from London whose idealistic hopes of ‘helping Africa’ were dashed in the face of a school where “there is no atlas….no textbooks” and “the headmaster has embezzled the school funds and is suspended.” The young teacher must “keep the chalks in his pocket, as otherwise they would be stolen.” Yet despite the dire situation, Lessing finds there a thirst for knowledge. “Everybody I met, everyone, begged for books,” she says.
But due to the educational situation, she predicts, “I do not think many of the people of this school will get prizes.”
After she travels back to London, she visits another school, “a very good school, whose name we all know.” She attempts to describe her experience in Zimbabwe to these pupils, but is met by blank stares. “Is it really so impossible for these privileged students to imagine such bare poverty?” she ponders.
“There are no images in their minds to match what you are telling them. In this case, of a school standing in dust clouds, where water is short, and where, at the end of term, a just-killed goat cooked in a great pot is the end of term treat,” she says.
These young British students, who have an entire library at their disposal, have barely cracked open a book and appear to have little desire to do so. “We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women who have had years of education, to know nothing about the world, to have read nothing,” she says.
Nonetheless, of these students, she says, “I‘m pretty sure of this lot there will be some who win prizes.”
She uses the opportunity to reflect on the “revolution” of the information age, which she likens to the “printing revolution,” but which took decades rather than centuries to change our ways of thinking:
“How are we, our minds, going to change with the new internet, which has seduced a whole generation into its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging.”
Lessing reviews the backgrounds of some of her fellow Nobel laureates, such as John Coetzee (2003) and V.S. Naipaul (2001), as proof of her argument that great writers are the product of reading great books. Of Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, who won the 2006 prize in literature, she says, “He said his father had 1,500 books. His talent did not come out of the air – he was connected with the great tradition.”
She then describes struggling writers in Africa who taught themselves to read from the labels of jam jars. And who then face the challenge of publishing a book. “A sheaf of paper is one thing – a publisher is another,” she says.
But most importantly, she says, in addition to the lack of publishers, is the absence of true inspiration, what she calls “the writer’s space.” This requires education.
“If the writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn,” she says.
Of her own space, she says:
“My mind is full of splendid memories of Africa which I can revive and look at when I want. How about those sunsets, gold and purple and orange, spreading across the sky at evening. How about butterflies and moths and bees on the aromatic bushes of the Kalahari? … Yes, elephants, giraffes, lions and the rest, there were plenty of those, but how about the sky at night, still unpolluted, black and wonderful, full of restless stars.”
Lessing herself is as restless as those stars. She describes a young African woman who becomes fixated on a passage of Anna Karenina and is inspired by the main character, Varenka, to dream of an education for her children.
Lessing sees the future of literature not in the cynical West, but in the as-of-yet unheard voices in developing countries: “We are seeing here that great hunger for education in Africa, anywhere in the Third World, or whatever we call parts of the world where parents long to get an education for their children which will take them from poverty.”
She finishes the lecture by appealing to the “storyteller…deep inside everyone of us.” It is this storyteller that brings out true creativity, something which many of us may brush off. And the future of the storyteller? “I think it is that girl and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us,” Lessing concludes.