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, 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.