Doris Lessing, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature has finally ended her prolific career, passing away peacefully at her London home in the early hours of this morning. She was 94 years old.
Perhaps her most famous work The Golden Notebook, which she came to call “her albatross” had a monumental impact on a worldwide collective of (largely) female readers, many would come to claim it changed their lives. The Nobel committee, who awarded Lessing the literature prize in 1987, when she was 87, described it as a “pioneering work” and said that it belonged to “the handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship.” They lauded her as an “epicist of the female experience, who with fire, scepticism and visionary power” had “subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.”
For Lessing, The Golden Notebook, although it earned her the reputation of a guru, was far from her favorite work. Of her wide-spanning canon of more than fifty books she was said to be most proud of her Canopus stories, and annoyed that these sci-fi novels, despite being popular, were never more critically applauded.
Lessing was a writer who refused to be categorised and rejected being adopted as a figurehead for one movement or another, notably feminism. Although she wrote so freely about sexual liberation and female emancipation, she never wished to be feted for that. A remarkable prophetess, she anticipated an extraordinary number of profound social changes, hence her preoccupation with ecological devastation in her later works. AS Byatt called her “one of the few prophets of literature” an estimation echoed by JM Coetzee who described her as “one of the great visionary novelists of our time.” There was hardly an ideological, cultural or intellectual issue she did not entangle herself with over the course of her long life, often to then vehemently reject it, as she did with Marxism. To say that she had a relentlessly inquiring mind hardly does her justice.
Young Doris was born in Persia (now Iran) and grew up in Africa, a country she left in 1950, leaving her two children behind. She refused to ever suffer maternal guilt over this decision. She set off for London, and made a new life there, but forever kept the keen eye of the outsider; she claimed this was an ingredient of her success. Her fascination with Africa never dwindled, she was virulently anti-apartheid, yet she never grew to regret her exile, crediting having grown up in a foreign country as a factor in her road to writing.
When she left her children she told them she was “going to change this ugly world” so that they could live in a “beautiful world” and she worked hard her entire live to try to damn and destroy the base injustices she decried, those of racism and injustice paramount among her concerns. She never stopped writing. She said she would go on writing “through thick and thin.” She loved that by her late years she would meet girls who would tell her that their mothers, and their grandmothers, had recommended her books to them. “That really is something, isn’t it?’ she laughed. Indeed it is.
Doris Lessing was always outspoken and never seemed to care what people thought of her, almost courting controversy. Her views on 9/11 and her disdain for the internet were topics she made no bones about. “Oh Christ!” was her expostulation on hearing the news of her Nobel prize. Her following remarks were so less feisty, ”I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one.” It was a “royal flush” she declared to the waiting news crews. She became a hit on YouTube for that little speech, as did her acceptance speech when she went up to take the award.
She was only the 11th woman to win it in 104 years and she had been on the shortlist countless times. She scoffed how ridiculous it was that Virginia Wolf was not on the list.
Tributes are pouring in tonight for this distinguished Grande Dame of Letters, and many of those tweeting are acknowledging her greatness and remembering her countless bon mots. “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now” reads one and another “There’s only one real sin and that’s to persuade oneself that second-best is anything but second best.”
In a oevre that covered every aspect of the written word from short stories, drama, poetry, novels, non-fiction, essays and memoirs to science-fiction, Lessing proved to be an indefatigable and iconoclastic contributor to the history of English Literature. Her debut The Grass is Singing, was a book she brought over on the boat with her from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). It was ten years before she found she could make a living from her writing.
In Under My Skin, her autobiography, she vividly recaptured the colonial upbringing she experienced at the hands of two fairly tragic parents. Her father was an amputee from the first world war and her mother did not cope well with their poverty in the Bush. Doris learned to be very self-sufficient and could skin a rabbit, shoot a pigeon, churn butter and drive a car by age 11.
She rebelled and took off to the capital where she mixed with communists, and married twice, the second time to Gottfried Lessing, whose name she kept. She had three children altogether, but only brought one, Peter, to London with her. At that time she was fervently political and later said she did not lose her allegiance to communism until 1954.
The second volume of her autobiography Walking in the Shade, followed her London years up until 1962. There, she wrote reflectively on how all human lives are a product of their pasts “Some tiny passing shade of feeling, a mere cloud shadow, may 10 years later become a storm of revelation.”
Doris Lessing’s agent, Jonathan Clowes, also her long-term friend, said that his client was a “wonderful writer with a fascinating and original mind.” He added that it had been “a privilege to work for her.” Her publisher, Harper Collins, was also full of praise “Doris Lessing was one of the great writers of our age” said the company’s CEO, “who was not afraid to fight for what she believed in.”
Doris Lessing may have died, aged 94, but her legacy will live on forever.
By Kate Henderson