Irascible Nobel laureate who never tired of literary experimentation

Doris Lessing: October 22nd, 1919 – November 17th, 2013

Doris Lessing on the doorstep of her London home after being told she had won the Nobel Prize for literature in October 2007.  Photograph:  Reuters

Doris Lessing on the doorstep of her London home after being told she had won the Nobel Prize for literature in October 2007. Photograph: Reuters

Sat, Nov 23, 2013, 00:01

Doris Lessing, who has died aged 94, was one of the major fiction writers of the second half of the 20th century, producing dozens of novels, short stories, essays and poems, drawing on a childhood in the central African bush, the teachings of eastern mystics and years of involvement with grass-roots communist groups.

She embarked on dizzying and, at times, baffling literary experiments. But it was her breakthrough novel, The Golden Notebook (1962), a structurally inventive and loosely autobiographical tale, that remained her best-known work.

In 2007 she was greeted by journalists gathered at the door of her London home who told her she had won the Nobel Prize for literature. “Oh, Christ!” she said upon hearing the news. “I couldn’t care less.”

A few days later she made headlines again when she dismissed the September 11th, 2001, attacks in the US as “not that terrible” compared to the toll from the IRA’s campaign in Britain.

The Golden Notebook, which critics generally consider her best novel, consists of a conventional novel, “Free Women”, and several notebooks, each in a different colour, kept by the protagonist, Anna Wulf, a novelist struggling with writer’s block.

The black notebook deals with Africa and the novel Anna wrote from her experiences there; the red notebook chronicles her Communist Party days; the yellow is an autobiographical novel within the larger novel; the blue is a diary of sorts. The golden notebook, at the end, brings together ideas and thoughts from the other sections.

Triumph of structure
Lessing wrote that she had intended the novel to capture the chaotic period after the Soviet Union officially renounced Stalinism. She considered it to be a triumph of structure. By fragmenting the story, she said, she wanted to show the danger of compartmentalising one’s thinking, the idea that “any kind of single-mindedness, narrowness, obsession, was bound to lead to mental disorder, if not madness”.

But the book was seen as a feminist work, a response that irritated her. Even though her novels and stories were filled with the issues at the core of the feminist movement, Lessing had sharp words for feminists.

Speaking in 1970, during the Vietnam War, she told her audience: “I’ve got the feeling that the sex war is not the most important war going on, nor is it the most vital problem in our lives.”

In 1994, she was no less critical. “Things have changed for white, middle-class women,” she said, “but nothing has changed outside this group.”

Lessing was born Doris Tayler in Tehran. Her father had met her mother while she was a nurse and he was recovering from having a leg amputated after a war wound.

When she was five, the family set off to farm in southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Taught by her mother, she read all the books she could find. Study at a Dominican convent school turned her into a Catholic, but the conversion was merely a stop on the way to atheism.

She left school at 14 and lived at home for a while. But as the friction with her mother became unbearable, she made two forays to the capital, Salisbury (now Harare), and between those stints wrote and tore up two novels.

Politically, she was active in communist circles and campaigned against the colour bar. Socially, she enjoyed dancing, films and drinks at the Sports Club. Looking back, she singled out dance music as the most seductive influence, but underlying it, she wrote, was nature “preparing us to replenish the population between world wars”.

After two brief marriages, to Frank Wisdom and Gottfried Lessing, she left for London in 1949, bringing with her the manuscript of her first novel, The Grass is Singing. The novels of the Children of Violence sequence, which reflects her life as a young woman in British colonial Africa, followed in the 1950s and 1960s.

Lessing fell hungrily on what London had to offer by way of theatre, music and museums, but in other ways found the capital rather flat, people’s energies leeched away by rationing and having to cope. She would later (In Pursuit of the English, 1960) describe it as a shaken, see-through city. The flats and houses in which she lived were stopping-off points for fellow members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, black African political exiles and wandering ex-communists.

Many of Lessing’s novels are long, dense and complex, and her prose has been called indigestible. JM Coetzee wrote that “Lessing has never been a great stylist – she writes too fast and prunes too lightly for that”.

Balzac with brains
When she began to write in the science fiction genre with the Canopus in Argos series, she disappointed some of her staunchest supporters. John Leonard, who classified The Golden Notebook as being among “the sacred texts of our time”, wrote: “One of the many sins for which the 20th century will be held accountable is that it has discouraged Mrs Lessing. She will transport herself, no longer writing novels like a Balzac with brains, but, instead, Books of Revelation, charts of the elements and their valences.”

One-offs such as The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974), The Good Terrorist (1985) and Love, Again (1996), very different from each other, and from the books belonging to schemes and series, revealed her enduring fascination with literary experiment.

Alfred & Emily, her last book, published in 2008, is half-fiction, half-memoir – on the one hand recounting her parents’ lives as they eked out a living on their Rhodesian farm and on the other imagining what their lives might have been like if the first World War had not occurred.

In a late volume of autobiography she wrote that by the age of 14 she could “set a hen, look after chickens and rabbits, work dogs and cats, pan for gold, take samples from reefs, sew, use the milk separator and churn butter, make cream cheese and ginger beer . . . drive the car, shoot pigeons and guineafowl for the pot, preserve eggs – and a lot else. Doing these things I was truly happy,” she wrote. “Few things in my life have given me greater pleasure.”

Her two sons predeceased her, and she is survived by her daughter, Jean Cowen, and two granddaughters.