From the freedom to write to her flamboyant sexual freedom, Lessing provided academic and writer Lara Feigel with a roadmap for her own explorationby Ruth Scurr / March 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
After Doris Lessing’s death in 2013, Lara Feigel reread The Golden Notebook (1962). Her older friends had begun to reminisce about how it had changed their lives. When Feigel first read it as a student, it had left little impression, but in her mid-thirties it proved revolutionary. Free Woman tells Feigel’s story, blending literary criticism, biography and memoir: “this book emerged as an attempt to understand freedom as Lessing conceived it and as we might apprehend it now—politically, intellectually, emotionally and sexually.”
This unconventional book celebrates a kind of ingenuous engagement with literature that academics like Feigel usually scorn. She reads Lessing, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007, in a highly personal manner, comparing herself directly to the older woman, writing about her characters as though they were extensions of the author—all things literary critics are trained not to do.
In disregarding her training, Feigel asserts her intellectual freedom. She refuses the straitjacket of her professional life and returns to the kind of free reading we associate with childhood. Unencumbered by the need to explain the novels as artefacts in a specific cultural context, she searches the texts for ideas and insights that speak to her personally.
Feigel, she tells us, married early: “by the age of 31 I had a child, husband, house, job and book; by the age of 35 I had another book and another child to come.” But then she had a miscarriage. The struggle to conceive a second child, while simultaneously pursuing her own freedom and measuring it against Lessing’s, is one of the narrative frameworks of Free Woman.
Of all Lessing’s freedoms, the sexual is the most flamboyant. The Golden Notebook includes a ground-breaking description of the difference between the clitoral and vaginal orgasm, which is still quoted in medical books about sex: “The vaginal orgasm is a dissolving in a vague, dark generalised sensation like being swirled in a warm whirlpool. There are several different sorts of clitoral orgasms, and they are more powerful (that is a male word) than the vaginal orgasm. There can be a thousand thrills, sensations, etc., but there is only one real female orgasm and that is when a man, from the whole of his need and desire, takes a woman and wants all her response. Everything else is a substitute and a fake, and the most inexperienced woman feels this instinctively.”