In Lessings world

Print edition : November 02, 2007

Doris Lessing addressing the media outside her home in north London on October 11 after winning the award. - SHAUN CURRY/AFP

At 87, Doris Lessing becomes the oldest person to win the Nobel Prize in Literature as well as only the 11th woman to do so.

Doris Lessing addressing

ANNOUNCING the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2007, the citation from the Swedish Academy described Doris Lessing as that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.

Lessing, who turns 88 on October 22, is reported to have responded to this news in her typically matter-of-fact style: Oh, Christ, I couldnt care less. Not only is she the oldest winner (last years winner, Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, was 54), she is also only the 11th woman to have won the prize since its inception over a hundred years ago. She is also probably one of the very few school dropouts to be awarded the prize. No wonder she could not care less.

After all, as one of the most important literary voices of the century, Lessing has been in the running for the Literature Nobel for decades. By now, she has been everywhere and seen it all, and she mentions this with characteristic bluntness: This has been going on for 30 years. Ive won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so Im delighted to win them all, the whole lot, okay?

Growing up as a child in colonial Africa (where her mother tried to recreate an Edwardian lifestyle for the family), later becoming a Communist party member and then being declared a prohibited alien in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, Lessing should know something about the collapse of governments and empires. She was born Doris May Tayler in Khermanshah, Persia (now Iran), in 1919, to British parents. Her father, who had been crippled in the First World War, was a clerk in the Imperial Bank of Persia; her mother had been a nurse. They had met at the hospital where Captain Tayler was recovering from his leg amputation. Six years after Doris birth, the family moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to take up maize farming. While her mother adapted to the new life, her father did not, and the farming venture, for which the Taylers had bought a thousand acres of land, failed.

This continent of desperate contrasts was the setting of much of her writing, including short stories such as The Story of Two Dogs, a disturbing tale of loneliness, unrequited yearnings and the wild. It drew from unhappy childhood memories; its dark and painful mood trying to warn children about the world that they were all going to grow up in.

Dropping out of convent school, Lessing read hungrily from the books that came regularly by post from London. These especially the 19th-century novels and her fathers war memories filled her early imagination. An autodidact, she taught herself about the world, about ideas and about the freedom that comes with forming ones own ideas: With a library you are free, not confined by temporary political climates. It is the most democratic of institutions because no one but no one at all can tell you what to read and when and how.

She ran away from home at 15, working first as a nursemaid and then as a telephone operator, learning about sexuality while trying to write short stories for publication. Married at 19 to Frank Wisdom, she had two children before she left home again. One of the central concerns in her early writing would be the gap between womens potential and the dreariness of their actual lives. Soon she was drawn to the Left Book Club, a reading group of Communists, where she met and married the German-Jewish Gottfried Lessing, one of the groups members, with whom she had a son.

Lessing has described her deep suspicion of political movements and the simplifying tendencies of ideologies: All political movements are like this we are in the right, everyone else is in the wrong. The people on our own side who disagree with us are heretics, and they start becoming enemies. With it comes an absolute conviction of your own moral superiority. Theres oversimplification in everything, and a terror of flexibility. Her disillusionment with the Communist movement came in the postwar years, and she formally left it a few years thereafter.

Following her second divorce, she moved with her son to England in 1949. She would remain in this country from then on. The publication of her first novel, The Grass is Singing, a tragic story about complicated divides of race and class, came with this move.

Lessings life thus far had already provided her with several enduring literary concerns: feminism, social justice, states of mind, the peace movement and a belief in the need for ethical judgement in every aspect of life and the question of how to present these concerns within novels that draw deeply from her own life. These themes are best reflected in the five semiautobiographical novels of the Children of Violence series, set mainly in Africa and published through the 1950s, which followed the awakening of their protagonist, Martha Quest, to an uncompromising vision of freedom. Together, the novels formed a 20th-century version of the 19th-century Bildungsroman and presented the reader with questions of how to make choices, how to be political, how to live.

In 1962, appeared the tour de force for which Lessing is still best known, The Golden Notebook. In this ambitious narrative experiment, the novel follows the life of Anna Wulf, her experience in the world around her, her complex inner life and her attempts to integrate the different directions in which her thoughts wander, and the different notebooks in which she stores them, into one coherent whole. There is no way of putting this sort of knowledge into words. Yet, these moments have been so powerful, like the rapid illuminations of a dream that remain with one waking, that what I have learned will be part of how I experience life until I die, notes Wulf.

Lessing felt that the novel was not saying anything different from what women felt all the time across the world: The Golden Notebook for some reason surprised people but it was no more than [what] you would hear women say in their kitchens every day in any country. Apart from generations of women who read the novel and recognised themselves in it, the feminist movement heralded the work as a literary manifesto, prescribing it in universities and claiming Lessing as an icon of feminism so much so that the novelist, who has spoken about her dislike of the idea of making oversimplified statements about men and women, called the novel her albatross.

Always interested in presenting ideas in varied narrative styles, Lessing began to turn her gaze elsewhere. An interest in Sufi mysticism and the relationship between individual and collective destiny led her literary directions to shift gradually in the 1970s and the 1980s from social realism into the realm of different fantasies, from what she called inner-space fiction with Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) to the language of dreams with Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and to science fiction and fantasy with the series titled Canopus in Argos: Archives (1979-1983). A return to the theme of revolutionary politics came with The Good Terrorist (1985), which A.S. Byatt has described as her favourite of Lessings novels (I like her best when she is being bad-tempered or gets mad about something.). This was followed by The Fifth Child (1988); in the same decade, Lessing decided to publish two novels under the pseudonym Jane Somers: The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could... (1984).

The first volume of Lessings autobiography, Under My Skin, which tells the story of her early life from her Rhodesian childhood to her move to England, appeared in 1995. The following year saw the publication of her first novel in seven years, Love Again. This is a richly beautiful tale about creativity, grief, and love which Byatt describes as the dreadfulness of falling in love when you feel youve reached an age when you might be able to not do that again.

Walking in the Shade, the second volume of Lessings autobiography, was published in 1997 and traces her life from her move to England in 1949 up to the publication of The Golden Notebook. She announced in 2001, with her inimitable frankness, that she did not particularly care to write a third volume.

Finally, even as Harold Bloom derides Lessings selection for the Nobel as nothing more than pure political correctness and describes her recent work as fourth-rate science fiction, Lessings latest novel, The Cleft (2007), depicts women as lazy and men as adventurous to the great irritation of literal-minded feminists. Clearly, her irreverence and creativity (Laughter is by definition healthy, she has said famously) continue to explore new frontiers, forcing her readers to think things through for themselves. Typical for a writer whose enduring plea to her readers has always been: Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself.

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