Yesterday, Doris Lessing, the novelist, died at the age of 94. I do not know her with the kind of familiarity that I might of other authors — at least when it comes to their bodies of work. But I did recently read an essay by Ms. Lessing entitled The Small Personal Voice in which she discusses the purpose and endurance of the novel as a form of art. Here is some of what she had to say on that subject:
The great [novelists] of the nineteenth century [like Tolstoy, Stendahl, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Turgenev, and Chekov] had neither religion nor politics nor aesthetic principles in common. But what they did have in common was a climate of ethical judgment; they shared certain values; they were humanists. A nineteenth-century novel is recognizably a nineteenth-century novel because of this moral climate.
If there is one thing which distinguishes our literature, it is a confusion of standards and the uncertainty of values. […] Words have become so inadequate to express the richness of our experience that the simplest sentence overheard on a bus reverberates like words shouted against a cliff. One certainty we all accept is the condition of being uncertain and insecure. It is hard to make moral judgments, to use words like good and bad.
Yet I reread Tolstoy, Stendahl, Balzac and the rest of the old giants continuously. So do most of the people I know, people who are left and right, committed and uncommitted, religious and unreligious, but who have at least this in common, that they read novels as I think they should be read, for illumination, in order to enlarge one’s perception of life.
Why? Because we are in search of certainties? Because we want to return to a comparatively uncomplicated world? Because it gives us a sense of safety to hear Balzac’s thundering verdicts of guilt or innocence, and to explore with Dostoevsky, for instance in Crime and Punishment, the possibilities of moral anarchy, only to find order restored at the end with the simplest statements of faith in forgiveness, expiation, redemption?
Recently, I finished reading an American novel which pleased me; it was witty, intelligent, un-self-pitying, courageous. Yet when I put it down I knew I would not reread it. I asked myself why not, what demand I was making on the author that he did not answer. Why was I left dissatisfied with nearly all the contemporary novels I read? Why, if I were reading for my own needs, rather than for the purposes of informing myself about what was going on, would I begin rereading War and Peace or The Red and the Black?
Put directly, like this, the answer seemed to me clear. I was not looking for a firm reaffirmation of old ethical values, many of which I don’t accept; I was not in search of the pleasures of familiarity. I was looking for the warmth, the compassion, the humanity, the love of people which illuminates the literature of the nineteenth century and which makes all of these old novels a statement of faith in man himself.