Lessing, Doris May (22 October 1919 – 11 October 2007)
Lessing, the novelist nee Doris May Tayler, was born in Persia (now Iran) to British parents. She has said that she knew by the age of twelve how to set a hen, raise rabbits, worm dogs, churn butter, cook and sew, go down mine shafts in a bucket, make cream cheese and ginger beer, drive cars, walk on stilts, and shoot pigeons and guinea fowl, all of which she said “is real happiness, a child’s happiness: being enabled to do and to make, above all to know you are contributing to the family, you are valuable and valued."
With her parents she moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1925. Her childhood, a mixture of idyllic and difficult, ended prematurely when she was sent to a convent school, where she was terrified by the nuns and their tales of sin and damnation, according to her Under My Skin (HarperPerennial, 1995).
Critic John Leonard has pointed out that Lessing, who left school at the age of fifteen, spent four years in a convent school “and was so admiring of holy water, rosary beads, Sanctus bells, and a coffin as pink as a cake, in the shape of a violin, she actually converted, for a couple of minutes, to Roman Catholicism.” But when her mother explained the Inquisition, “she promptly quit religion.” Lessing was influential in assisting an entire generation to understand Africa as a continent in transition, particularly drawing attention to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where she lived for twenty-five years before moving to London.
Lessing's formal education ended when she dropped out of an all-girls high school at age 13. She left home at 15, married at 19, and had two children before leaving her family. She has been married twice (and twice divorced) and has had three children. Her second husband was Gottfried Lessing, a German emigrant.
Her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was published in 1949, the year she moved to London with her son. Her famed "Children of Violence" series (1951-1959) features her heroine, Martha Quest, in a series of four "coming of age" novels.
She wrote about Africa, communism, women, and global catastrophe in a series collectively titled The Children of Violence, which included Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple From the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965), and The Four-Gated City (1969). She is best known for The Golden Notebook (1962), an ambitious novel that was hailed as a landmark by the Women’s Movement.
Lessing is interested in the works of Idries Shah as well as Sufism, the Muslim philosophical and literary movement that emerged among the Shiites in the late 10th and early 11th centuries. Her Collected Stories (2 volumes, 1978) contain varied works including meditations on the material and spiritual life in The Temptation of Jack Orkney.
In 1994, Under My Skin, Volume One of her autobiography (to 1949), although it abounds, says Leonard, “with unpleasant smells from the past - horses, camphor, petrol, paraffin, chamber pots, dead fish, wet wool, the habits of nuns, her father’s crotch - none is as redolent as the very idea of Anna’s compulsive washing of herself in The Golden Notebook, so that she won’t smell of her own period.” The work also abounds with tales of her life until she was thirty. She tells what she read, when the nuns let her; what music she enjoyed; where she went and what she thought. Presumably in volume two, she will tell how she became interested in Outer Space, for she wrote five volumes of the Canopus in Argus: Archives series.
“Nothing in history,” she writes in the autobiography,
- suggests that we may expect anything but wars, tyrants, sickness, bad times, calamities, while good times are always temporary. Above all, history tells us nothing stays the same for long. We expect gold at the foot of always-renewable rainbows. I feel I have been part of some mass illusion or delusion. Certainly part of mass beliefs and convictions that now seem as lunatic as the fact that for centuries expeditions of God-lovers trekked across the Middle East to kill the infidel.
Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962 (1998) relates obtaining her official Communist Party card in the 1950s at a time she had already become disillusioned by communism. Everyone was a communist in those days, she said - more would say, however, that intellectuals were left-wing. What Lessing disliked was the semi-dogmatism of her comrades’ thinking, so the book attempts to evaluate her later views about society. Upon her return in 1956 to Africa, she was termed a “Prohibited Immigrant.” Of her break with communism:
- I knew that I had accepted the Marxist package for no deeper reason than that the communists I met in Southern Rhodesia had actually read the books I had, were in love with literature, and because they were the only people I knew who took it for granted that the white regime was doomed. . . I began a systematic search for something different.
On Religion and Dogmatism
In as interview with Harvey Blume in the Boston Book Review, Lessing said,
- You'd never believe, when I was young, we genuinely believed religious wars were over. We'd say, at least it's impossible to have a religious war now. Can you believe that? . . . I'm so afraid of religion. Its capacity for murder is terrifying.
In analyzing a human propensity to dogmatism, including her own previous communist conversion, Lessing has said in a 25 July 1982 article, "Doris Lessing on Feminism, Communism and 'Space Fiction' " in The New York Times,
- There are certain types of people who are political out of a kind of religious reason. I think it's fairly common among socialists: They are, in fact, God-seekers, looking for the kingdom of God on earth. . . . If you don't believe in Heaven, then you believe in socialism.
In 2001 she was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize in Literature for her works in defense of freedom and Third World causes. She also received the David Cohen British Literature Prize. She declined a knighthood, but accepted a Companion of Honour.
When 88 in 2008, Lessing was asked by New York Times Magazine reporter Deborah Solomon if she still practiced Sufism.
- Lessing: I think the word is "studying" it, "learning" it.
- Solomon: Isn't it a strand of Islam, founded by Muhammad?
- Lessing: I know people think this, because they have looked in the nearest reference book,
- but the thing is Sufism has always had adherents from all faiths or none.
Lessing does not like the idea of being recognized as a feminist author. When asked why, Lessing replies:
- What the feminists want of me is something they haven't examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, 'Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.' Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I've come with great regret to this conclusion.
Appearing at an Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2006, the octogenarian was described by Diane Maclean online as being as feisty as ever,
- Doris Lessing also touched on conflict when describing her new novel, Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog. In a wide-ranging debate that brought in global warming and the fate of refugees Lessing – looking a little like a gentle Miss Marple – showed her teeth when asked to agree that the fate of women and children refugees was greater than the suffering of men. "Look at all the young men who have been killed in Lebanon," she said. "Are they not to be cared about because they're men?" Lessing's anger at the world continued as she despaired of what we were doing. "The world is changing so dramatically and we always think the world today is permanent, but it isn't. We are so careless and stupid."
Recipient of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature
In 2007, Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the eleventh woman to win the prize that now carries with it a 10 million Swedish crown honorarium, about $1.6 million.
The Swedish Academy described her as "that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny," adding that "The burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work, and it belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship." Her The Golden Notebook sold only 6,000 copies, but Robert Gottlieb who then was her editor at Simon & Schuster and later at Alfred A. Knopf, said, "But they were the right 6,000 copies. The people who read it were galvanized by it, and it made her a famous writer in America."
Lessing reportedly had been on the short list as a possible recipient of the prize, leading her to comment that "Either they were going to give it to me sometime before I popped off or not at all." When the news arrived that she had received the award, a friend of hers - Lynn Bryan - asked why she thought she won the prize this year. "I don't know," Ms. Bryan said Lessing responded, "I am genuinely surprised because they rejected me all those years ago."
Although Harold Bloom the American critic at Yale called the award "pure political correctness," adding, "I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable . . . fourth-rate science fiction," another - Jane Friedman, who heads HarperCollins - has said that "for women and for literature, Doris Lessing is a mother to us all."