Doris Lessing: A Retrospective (dorislessing.org) Photo: Chris Saunders
At this morning’s news of Doris Lessing’s death, I am overcome by grief. What a towering figure, how much she has meant to so many, and how much she continues to mean to me. I haven’t even been able to bring myself to read the Guardian obituary yet, but of course I will. A year or two ago I wrote a very personal tribute to my literary heroine, Doris Lessing and Me, and there’s little I can add to it now. Just before that I had been asked to write an entry on her in The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction, so I am posting it below, in the hope that those of you who have not yet discovered all that this astonishing writer has to offer may be tempted to explore a bit further. Rest In Peace, Doris Lessing. Your work will live forever.
Doris Lessing (1919-2013)
Doris Lessing’s life and work span the major political events and cultural movements of the twentieth century. Her extensive body of writing encompasses two world wars; the rise and fall of fascism, communism, and apartheid; widespread decolonization; postcolonial migration; psychoanalysis; the nuclear age; the sexual revolution; the culture wars; late capitalism; terrorism; and environmental crisis. Its historical frame includes myth, chronicle, and prophecy, while its geographical purview extends over five continents and beyond, to outer and inner space. Lessing’s generic and stylistic range is equally expansive. At once a British, postcolonial, and world writer with a far-flung readership across the generations, Lessing is a truly global figure.
Doris May Tayler was born on October 22, 1919 in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran) to English parents. Her father, maimed and disillusioned by World War I, had left England and worked for the Imperial Bank of Persia until she was 5, when the family migrated to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her father’s maize farm was never a commercial success and, by white Rhodesian standards, Lessing grew up in poverty, spending much time alone in the bush with her brother. The strong-willed young Doris clashed with her intelligent and unhappy mother, a wartime nurse who now focused her unfulfilled ambition on her children. Although she was a voracious reader, she dropped out of school at 13, and at 17 left home to work in Salisbury (now Harare). At 19, as another war loomed, she married Frank Wisdom; that marriage produced two children but did not last, and by 1945 she had left both husband and children. She soon became involved with a group of young communist intellectuals in the Left Book Club, where she met and married Gottfried Lessing, with whom she had one son, Peter. This marriage broke down in 1949, when the 29-year-old Mrs. Lessing, stultified by colonial life, sailed for England with Peter and the manuscript of her first novel. She has lived in London ever since, supporting herself continuously with her writing.
Lessing is a prolific working writer. She has written more than 50 books, including a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction, drama, poetry, an opera libretto, and even the text for a graphic novel. Her numerous prizes have included the Somerset Maugham Award, the Prix Médicis étranger, the Mondello Prize, the Grinzane Cavour Prize, the James Tait Black Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In 1992 she declined the offer of Dame of the British Empire, explaining, “surely there is something unlikeable about a person, when old, accepting honours from an institution she attacked when young?” (Adams 2008). In 1999, however, she accepted a Companion of Honour from Queen Elizabeth II “for conspicuous national service”; in 2001, a Companion of Literature from the Royal Society of Literature; and in 2007, the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Lessing’s first novel, The Grass is Singing (1950), is a favorite among readers and critics. Beginning with the terse, coded language of a newspaper report on the murder of a white woman by her black “houseboy,” the novel unravels the tortured psyche of the dominant but extremely defensive white settler minority in Southern Rhodesia, exposing the pathology of colonialism and racial domination.
Children of Violence (1952–69), Lessing’s epic five-novel autobiographical Bildungsroman, follows its protagonist Martha Quest from adolescence in the bush of 1930s Southern Rhodesia, through 1960s London, and finally to a post-apocalyptic future. Martha’s life is overshadowed by war: World War I, which shattered her parents’ lives; World War II, which robbed her generation of its youth; and, after the atom bomb, the ever present threat of nuclear war. The first four novels – Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1958), and Landlocked (1965) – are set in Southern Africa, following Martha from adolescence to middle age as she breaks away from her mother’s controlling grip, establishes economic independence, marries, has two children, involves herself with communist intellectuals fiercely opposed to the color bar, divorces, remarries, has a third child, divorces her second husband and, as the fourth volume closes, boards a ship for London with her youngest son. In the fifth, The Four-Gated City (1969), set in London, Martha becomes a nurturer despite herself, and helplessly watches a new generation repeating outdated patterns of behavior. In the post-apocalyptic coda, prefiguring Lessing’s later “space fiction,” a small number of “new children” emerge whose heightened senses make them the guardians of their group of survivors.
Under My Skin (1994), the first volume of Lessing’s autobiography, covers the period from earliest memories until her 1949 arrival in England, and Walking in the Shade (1997) covers the period between 1949 and 1962. While both volumes were well received, many readers found the fictional Martha Quest a more compelling figure than the “real” Doris. Lessing abandoned an initial plan to write a third volume and instead wrote The Sweetest Dream (2001), a fictional attempt to capture the contradictory spirit of the 1960s (author’s note).
The Golden Notebook (1962a) is considered by many to be Lessing’s greatest work. In the introduction, she speaks of her effort to write “a novel which described the intellectual and moral climate” of her time even as it “assumed … that filter which is a woman’s way of looking at life” (p. xiv). Indeed, it captured the zeitgeist for many female readers who came of age during the 1960s sexual revolution. Characteristic of Lessing’s epic scope, Notebook encompasses war, communism, the rejection of Stalinism, McCarthyism and the Cold War, generational change, feminism, psychoanalysis, and mental breakdown – all from the perspective of a single mother attempting to overcome writer’s block and emotional dependence on male-dominated relationships. Lessing dismisses the “isms” of the novel’s subject matter, preferring to highlight its innovative structure as the embodiment of its central theme – the human tendency to compartmentalize reality.
Notebook marked the beginning of Lessing’s engagement with Sufi mysticism. Her work has continued to develop Sufi concepts of love, detachment, and individual and collective transformation. In Notebook, Anna Wulf practices “the Game,” visualizing herself within ever larger frames, and simultaneously holding in her mind’s eye both the planet turning on its axis and herself sitting alone in her bedroom. In Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), the hospitalized protagonist, found raving and amnesiac, embarks on a mythic inner journey in which he understands the human race’s violence and destructiveness as a loss of collective consciousness. Lessing’s writing is not religious, however. Her voice has always remained skeptical and eminently rational, she has never espoused organized religion, and she continually challenges blind belief.
The 1970s saw two more novels in which disintegration and breakdown lead to unexpected growth. The Summer before the Dark (1973) charts a middle-aged, middle-class wife and mother’s encounter with the stark cultural reality of aging for a woman. Far more experimental was The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974a), described by Lessing as “an attempt at autobiography.” In Memoirs, a nameless middle-aged narrator and her ward, the adolescent Emily, teach each other how to survive as a disintegrating bourgeois social order and urban retribalization eventually usher in new hope for transformation.
Between 1979 and 1983, Lessing produced a second series of five novels, Canopus in Argos: Archives, the first and the tour de force being Re: Colonised Planet 5: Shikasta (1979). In this series, she extended the trajectory of Briefing and Memoirs to a new genre of “space fiction.” Drawing upon the Old Testament and other sacred texts, the series allegorically retells the human story as a struggle among the highly evolved Canopus, the bureaucratic Sirius, and the brutish Shammat for colonial control over the broken planet Shikasta. In Shikasta, the Canopean emissary Johor is born into a late twentieth-century human family. From this vantage point he can report on the planet’s condition from a detached yet compassionate perspective, as he has done repeatedly before. Lessing’s characteristic strategy in the series is to zoom out and back in, from macrocosm to microcosm, presenting human history in a dizzying sweep, then scrutinizing the dynamics of individual lives. Despite her cosmic scope, Lessing explores the critical significance of the individual within a larger collectivity; the “small personal voice” of her earlier fiction still matters.
In the second novel of the series, The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980a), Lessing uses the allegory of marriage to illustrate the necessity of challenge and complementarity to human development. The marriage ordained between Al-Ith, queen of the peaceable but complacent Zone Three, and Ben Ata, king of the warlike but energetic Zone Four, restores balance to both couple and kingdom. Marital bliss is short-lived, however, as Ben Ata must marry the wild Queen of Zone Five and Al-Ith must climb to the rarefied heights of Zone Two, traveling the final stage of her life’s journey alone. The Sirian Experiments (1980b) is narrated by a dry bureaucrat who attempts to move Sirian colonial policy toward a more enlightened Canopean model, and in so doing falls afoul of her own administration. The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982) is set on a planet rapidly becoming uninhabitable as an ice age looms. Only one representative can survive, composed of people who must sacrifice their individual identities to preserve the best qualities of the planet. Finally, Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983) demonstrates Shammat’s manipulation of emotions through rhetoric, as Lessing devotes an entire novel to the power of language itself to corrupt and debase.
Lessing sent two realistic novels to publishers in the early 1980s under the pseudonym Jane Somers. Her aim was to encourage new writers by drawing attention to biases of the publishing world. The novels, published to limited though respectable reviews, sold fewer than 5,000 copies each, proving Lessing’s point and embarrassing critics who had failed to recognize her distinctive prose. Jane Somers, first-person narrator of The Diary of a Good Neighbor (1983) and If the Old Could … (1984), is a well-heeled, middle-aged editor of a women’s fashion magazine who finds herself caring for her troubled teenage niece and a dying old woman, and then, in the second novel, falls in love with an older married man. After Lessing revealed Somers’s identity, the novels were reissued in one volume, The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984). She continued to explore aging – and notably, love and passion in old age – in Love, Again (1996), The Sweetest Dream (2001), and The Grandmothers (2003).
Two of Lessing’s 1980s novels serve as cautionary tales: following a series of biographical vignettes in Shikasta which featured the profiles of individuals who turned to terrorism, The Good Terrorist (1985) is a prescient psychological study of an accidental terrorist, depicting the self-deception of a young, middle-class woman in a household of squatters. The Fifth Child (1988) is a fable of the Thatcher era in which a young professional couple produces four perfect children but the fifth, Ben, is uncontrollable from the start. Ben derails his perfect family but, more importantly, finds himself an outcast from a society that cannot tolerate difference. In the sequel, Ben, in the World (2000), an adult Ben must try to make his way in a world where he is entirely alone.
Lessing has also written numerous short stories, published in several collections. Her stories are known for their psychological analysis of power dynamics in human relationships (“One Off the Short List”), unashamed discussion of sexuality (“Each Other”), exposure of the destructiveness of social expectations, particularly for women (“To Room Nineteen”), and coming to terms with difficult truths (“Not a Very Nice Story”). Several explore reciprocal relationships between humans and animals (“An Old Woman and Her Cat”), depicting the animals with compassion yet refusing to anthropomorphize them.
Many of Lessing’s early stories are set in Southern Africa and are collected in African Stories (1964). Her outspoken opposition to apartheid brought her “banned person” status in 1956, both in Rhodesia and South Africa. The respective bans were not lifted until Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 and the end of South African apartheid in 1995. Going Home (1957) describes Lessing’s first trip back to Rhodesia in 1956, and African Laughter (1992) is her account of four visits to Zimbabwe in the 1980s and early 1990s after a 25-year exile. Most recently, portions of The Sweetest Dream (2001) are set in the thinly fictionalized postcolonial African republic of “Zimlia” and chart the corruption and betrayals of government officials.
In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech Lessing said, “The storyteller is deep inside everyone of us … It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative” (2007b). This figure has gained centrality in Lessing’s work as she draws increasingly from oral traditions and ancient texts, using the fable as a teaching story to encapsulate the accumulated wisdom of human civilization under threat. Her storyteller is often a detached, older narrator, a chronicler of collective memory, like the Roman senator of The Cleft (2007a), who struggles to break out of his own society’s frames of reference to imagine the ancient origins of the relationship between the sexes.
Mara and Dann: An Adventure (1999) and its sequel The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog (2005) are cautionary, futuristic fables mapping primal human relationships and presaging the ravages of global climate change. Mara and her beloved younger brother Dann make a hazardous journey north through the continent of Ifrik, pressing on through waves of doomed and desperate refugees across a continent in which militarization, drought, disease, and global warming have destroyed centuries of civilization.
Doris Lessing writes with passion and detachment, a penetrating intelligence, and a wry humor that abhors sentimentality. She has stretched the novel form and broken barriers of gender and genre. She dislikes political correctness and has never been afraid to speak her mind. Her interests – whether communism, sexuality, psychoanalysis, spirituality, ecology, or geopolitics – have always been ahead of the curve, and by the time they acquire mainstream status, she has moved on. Yet her themes and preoccupations have remained remarkably consistent: a frustration with the endless repetition of human behavior patterns, the struggle to liberate the self from these patterns, and the effort to understand and realize the individual’s relationship and responsibility to the whole. Lessing defies categorization and resists every label aside from that of writer.
At 88, Lessing declared Alfred and Emily (2008) to be her last book. Interviewed after its publication, she observed, “I have done quite a good job of documenting a lot of our time, I think … You know, looking at it objectively, I’ve written one or two good books” (Barker 2008). In the second, autobiographical half of Alfred and Emily, she describes the enduring trauma of World War I for her parents and herself, a war that “squatted over my childhood … And here I still am, trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free” (p. xiii). In its first, fictional half, however, Doris Lessing imagines what each of her parents’ lives might have been like if that war had not occurred, thereby setting them – and perhaps herself – free at last.
REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS
Adams, S. (2008). Doris Lessing Rejected Top Honour for being “in the Name of a Non-Existent Empire” (Oct. 21). At www.telegraph.co.uk, accessed Apr. 15, 2009.
Barker, V. (2008). Doris Lessing Revisits – and Rewrites – the Past (Oct. 4). At www.npr.org, accessed Mar. 9, 2009. Hanford, J. Doris Lessing: A Retrospective. At www.dorislessing.org, accessed Apr. 15, 2009.
Lessing, D. (1950). The Grass is Singing. London: Michael Joseph.
Lessing, D. (1952). Martha Quest. London: Michael Joseph.
Lessing, D. (1953). Five: Short Novels. London: Michael Joseph.
Lessing, D. (1954). A Proper Marriage. London: Michael Joseph.
Lessing, D. (1957). Going Home. London: Michael Joseph.
Lessing, D. (1958). A Ripple from the Storm. London: Michael Joseph.
Lessing, D. (1960). In Pursuit of the English. London: MacGibbon and Kee.
Lessing, D. (1962a). The Golden Notebook. London: Michael Joseph.
Lessing, D. (1962b). Play with a Tiger. London: Michael Joseph.
Lessing, D. (1964). African Stories. London: Michael Joseph.
Lessing, D. (1965). Landlocked. London: MacGibbon and Kee.
Lessing, D. (1967). Particularly Cats. London: Michael Joseph.
Lessing, D. (1969). The Four-Gated City. London: MacGibbon and Kee.
Lessing, D. (1971). Briefing for a Descent into Hell. London: Jonathan Cape.
Lessing, D. (1973). The Summer before the Dark. London: Jonathan Cape.
Lessing, D. (1974a). The Memoirs of a Survivor. London: Octagon.
Lessing, D. (1974b). A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, Interviews (ed. P. Schlueter). New York: Knopf.
Lessing, D. (1978a). The Temptation of Jack Orkney: Collected Stories, (vol 2) . London: Jonathan Cape.
Lessing, D. (1978b). To Room Nineteen: Collected Stories, (vol. 1) . London: Jonathan Cape.
Lessing, D. (1979). Re: Colonized Planet: Shikasta. London: Jonathan Cape.
Lessing, D. (1980a). The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five. London: Jonathan Cape.
Lessing, D. (1980b). The Sirian Experiments. London: Jonathan Cape.
Lessing, D. (1982). The Making of the Representative for Planet 8. London: Jonathan Cape.
Lessing, D. (1983). Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire. London: Jonathan Cape.
Lessing, D. (1984). The Diaries of Jane Somers. London: Michael Joseph.
Lessing, D. (1985). The Good Terrorist. London: Jonathan Cape.
Lessing, D. (1987). Prisons We Choose to Live Inside. London: Jonathan Cape.
Lessing, D. (1988). The Fifth Child. London: Jonathan Cape.
Lessing, D. (1992). African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe. New York: HarperCollins.
Lessing, D. (1994). Under My Skin, vol. 1 of My Autobiography, to 1949. New York: HarperCollins.
Lessing, D. (1996). Love, Again. New York: HarperCollins.
Lessing, D. (1997). Walking in the Shade, vol. 2 of My Autobiography, 1949 to 1962. New York: HarperCollins.
Lessing, D. (1999). Mara and Dann: An Adventure. London: HarperFlamingo.
Lessing, D. (2000). Ben, in the World. New York: HarperCollins.
Lessing, D. (2001). The Sweetest Dream. New York: HarperFlamingo.
Lessing, D. (2003). The Grandmothers. London: HarperFlamingo.
Lessing, D. (2005). The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog. London: HarperCollins.
Lessing, D. (2007a). The Cleft. New York: HarperFlamingo.
Lessing, D. (2007b). On Not Winning the Nobel Prize: Nobel Lecture. At http://nobelprize.org, accessed Apr. 15, 2009.
Lessing, D. (2008). Alfred and Emily. New York: HarperCollins.
Taylor, J. (ed.) (1982). Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives: Reading and Rereading Doris Lessing. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Cite this article
REGE, JOSNA. “Lessing, Doris.” The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction. Shaffer, Brian W. Blackwell Publishing, 2011. Blackwell Reference Online. 26 February 2011 <http://www.literatureencyclopedia.com/subscriber/tocnode?id=g9781405192446_chunk_g978140519244667_ss1-5>
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