A literary giant who pushed boundaries
DORIS LESSING WRITER 22-10-1919 - 17-11-2013
22-10-1919 - 17-11-2013
Doris Lessing, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, who has died aged 94, was one of the towering figures of modern literature. In the course of a writing career that spanned the latter half of the 20th century, she commented on most of its grand sweeps and shed light on its many absurdities.
She was a prolific writer, producing approximately a book a year for nearly 60 years. They included plays, poems and short stories, but her novels, in particular The Golden Notebook, remained her best known, best-loved and most controversial work.
A generous, open-minded character, she was, at various stages of her life, a communist, socialist, feminist, atheist, Laingian and finally a Sufi. To each of these beliefs, she brought a tireless enthusiasm that sometimes obscured judgment. She fell for ideas, digested them, outgrew them and then moved on. Her interests were varied but her ability to make fascinating fiction out of life was constant.
If she had written nothing else, The Golden Notebook (1962) would have secured Lessing a place in the hall of fame. With it, she wrote about "new women" in a new kind of novel, one that stretched the boundaries of realist fiction.
Through the story of the novelist Anna Wulf, working her way through writer's block, Lessing commented on the form of the conventional novel. By dividing the narrative between four notebooks, she mirrored her portrayal of breakdown and mental disintegration. At least that was what she thought she was doing. Much to her surprise, The Golden Notebook was hailed as a trumpet blast for women's liberation and Lessing found many of her female friends avoiding her in case they were thought man-hating.
She was simply unable to understand it. After all, she argued, she had only written in public the sort of things women were always saying to each other in private. In 1989, 27 years after its publication, Lessing was amused to receive letters praising The Golden Notebook from a genteel North London girls' school. The "ballbreaker" had become a bestseller.
In 1950, she caused a sensation in the literary world with her first published novel, The Grass Is Singing. It told the story of Mary, the wife of a poor white farmer in southern Rhodesia who, driven mad by loneliness and poverty, begins an obsessive - and eventually fatal - relationship with her black houseboy. It was immediately popular, reprinted seven times within five months. From then on, Lessing was established and the other books came swiftly.
The Children of Violence series, published between 1952 and 1969, followed the adventures of one Martha Quest through adolescence, marriage, motherhood, divorce, communism and finally to the apocalypse of a third world war. Lessing always sternly denied any autobiographical basis for this series, but her own experiences were too similar to those of Martha's for anyone to be convinced.
In The Four-Gated City (1969), the last in the Children of Violence series, Lessing moved her writing away from the sturdy realism of her earlier novels into the realms of the fantastic and the paranormal. She made telepathy a common occurrence and brought the shadowy world of mysticism and madness into focus. At the same time, she was discovering science-fiction.
It was a new genre of literature for her and she found its possibilities exciting. The Four-Gated City was the springboard for her own launch into space fiction. Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) traced the internal journey of a madman, and The Memoirs of a Survivor (1975) the external travels of a woman in a post-holocaust London. The Canopus in Argos: Archives series, published between 1979 and 1983, represented Lessing's most
determined attempt to chart new territories.
But there were many who wished she had stuck with the old map. Some readers loyally followed her on her galactic mission; others grumbled and waited for her to return to her senses and realism. This she did, but in a wholly unexpected way.
In 1984, Jane Somers, a new writer with only two books and a few tepid reviews to her credit, turned out to be the famous and highly regarded Doris Lessing. Jane Somers' novels The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could (1984) had initially suffered a series of rejections, including one from Lessing's own publishers. It was an elaborate hoax, one that gave her a great deal of pleasure. She considered herself thoroughly successful in proving the literary world's uncourageous response to new writing.
The Jane Somers books were Lessing's back-door return to realism. The Good Terrorist followed in 1985. Inspired by the Harrods bombing, it described the posturing politics of demonstrations and riots and the unhappy Alice Mellings, who becomes caught up in that world. As well as being a formidable novelist, Lessing was also a talented short story writer, publishing collections alongside her other works.
Her novels were not uniformly good. Some critics have called her style "plodding" and "flat-footed", and her space fiction was often dismissed out of hand. She continued to defend it and claimed: "I'll be damned if I can see any difference between some parts of The Grass Is Singing, my first novel, and some parts of Shikasta [her worst novel]." As a literary critic, she was inadequate; as a writer, she stood alone.
She was born Doris May Tayler on October 22, 1919, in Kermanshah, Persia, to British parents. Her father, Captain Alfred Cook Tayler, a World War I veteran, had married his nurse, Emily McVeagh.
In the mid-1920s, the Taylers moved to southern Rhodesia where home was a 1200-hectare maize farm on the veld. There they settled down to a life of quiet but persistent economic failure. In later life, Lessing was to recall the beauty of the land. While growing up, she was depressed by its loneliness. To annoy her mother, she left school at 14. To the end of her life, she remained immensely pleased with her lack of education.
By her own admission, she was the archetypally tiresome adolescent, irritating her parents with her outspoken dislike of Rhodesia's "colour bar".
At the age of 22, she left her father's farm for the small town of Salisbury, where she earned her living as a telephone operator and clerical worker. In 1939 she married Frank Charles Wisdom. The marriage lasted five years and produced a son and a daughter. A year after the divorce, she married Gottfried Anton Nicholas Lessing. That marriage also lasted five years and she bore another son, Peter.
She was less than enthusiastic about marriage, once remarking: "I do not think marriage is one of my talents. I've been much happier unmarried than married."
During the early 1940s, Lessing was active in organising a communist group. Later she was to dismiss youthful politics as a way of creating a social life, but for many years, a great deal of her considerable energy was devoted to meetings, delivering pamphlets and drumming up supporters.
In 1949, Lessing left Rhodesia for England. She had her son, Peter, in her arms, £20 in her handbag and the manuscript of The Grass Is Singing in her suitcase. While waiting for it to be accepted and published, she lived a somewhat precarious existence in some of the seedier parts of London.
These down-and-out-in-London experiences became the subject of In Pursuits of the English. With her wryly funny take on post-war London and its working-class inhabitants, Lessing, in the tradition of the outsider, held up a mirror to England and English values.
Nevertheless, this grim and gloomy London was to be Lessing's home for the rest of her life. Fortunately, the dingy 1950s gave way to the much brighter 1960s, and she came to regard the capital as "a lovely place to live".
Shortly after arriving in England, Lessing formally joined the Communist Party, a decision she subsequently dismissed as "crazy". Her outspoken views on apartheid led to her being declared a banned person from South Africa and Rhodesia. The ban was lifted 30 years later and she was able to return "home". It was a visit that revealed how much she had changed and how much she owed the African continent. "Africa gives you the knowledge that man is a small creature among other creatures in a large landscape," she observed.
During the 1960s, she became more and more disenchanted with formal politics and more interested in psychology and the metaphysical. In her books as well as in life, she explored the possibilities of psychoanalysis, telepathy, meditation, deja vu and dreams. Like many enthusiasts, she displayed a canny ability to adopt selectively any new theories or beliefs. Thus she could find spiritual satisfaction in Sufism, an aspect of Islam, while at the same time calling Islam itself one of "these bloody, bloody religions".
In 1986, her love-hate relationship with Islam was reinforced by a visit to Afghanistan as a guest of Afghan Aid. She supported the cause of the mujahideen, embarked on a flurry of fundraising activities on their behalf, while at the same time loathing the treatment accorded Muslim women.
She continued to produce novels until her 90th year, and wrote two volumes of autobiography, Under My Skin (1994), which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1995, and Walking in the Shade (1997). She was made a companion of honour in 2000 and a companion of literature in 2001.
Informed by a reporter in 2007 that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, she replied: "Oh, Christ." She devoted her acceptance speech to a denunciation of the internet, an elegy to the lost art of reading.
Lessing's achievements and versatility as a novelist won her many loyal readers whose devotion was tested but unshaken by her eccentricity, perversity and fickleness. Sometimes she wrote in styles that did not suit her, about ideas that did no credit to her intelligence; she even on occasion wrote badly. Yet she remained a writer whose exuberant spill of ideas overcame these lapses and whose energy and perception kept her admirers enthralled until the last page.