Nobel-winning British novelist Doris Lessing died yesterday, at the age of 94. Although best-known for her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, Lessing was also a poet, essayist, memoirist, and playwright; wrote several collections’ worth of short stories; penned the librettos for a pair of operas by Philip Glass that were based on two of the books in her Canopus In Argos: Archives series; and even wrote a graphic novel, Playing The Game (1995), that was illustrated by The Walking Dead artist Charlie Adlard.
Lessing grew up in what is now Zimbabwe, selling her first stories to South African magazines when she was still a teenager. In 1949, Lessing—who had campaigned against apartheid, and met her second husband through the Left Book Club—moved to London to pursue a literary career, and in hopes of finding greater freedom to pursue her political interests. Her first book, The Grass Is Singing, was a novel about the violent racial tensions and British colonial culture of Southern Africa. It was an immediate success. For the rest of the 1950s, she largely devoted herself to the autobiographical “Children Of Violence” series, in which her heroine Martha Quest comes of age in Southern Africa and achieves political consciousness while struggling for personal independence. (The series, which began in 1952 with Martha Quest, ended in the late ‘60s with Landlocked and The Four-Gated City.)
In 1962, Lessing solidified her reputation with The Golden Notebook, generally regarded as one of the greatest books—and, in the words of critic John Leonard, “sacred texts”—of the twentieth century. A grand summation of Lessing’s experiences and observations as a woman and anti-Stalinist Communist, the book would also be embraced as a key feminist work, a distinction that Lessing, characteristically, reacted to with mixed feelings. Lessing complained that both its detractors and its champions had “belittled” it by treating it as if it were “all about the sex war,” adding, “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 2001, she went so far as to decry the “unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men, which is now so part of our culture that is hardly noticed. The most stupid, ill-educated and nasty woman can rubbish the nicest, kindest and most intelligent man, and no one protests.” Her uneasiness at being labeled a feminist writer—and perhaps also her great fondness for the word “rubbish”—marked her as an artist who was never comfortable with simplistic answers and easy formulas, and a dread of being pigeonholed.
Lessing made it clear that her loathing of knee-jerk responses and clear-cut categories extended to the literary industry itself, when she embarked on the Canopus In Argos: Archives series, to the confusion and irritation of many critics disheartened to find a serious literary novelist mucking about with science fiction. This despite the books—which were described by Lessing as an attempt to “tell (I hope) a beguiling tale or two; to put questions, both to myself and to others; to explore ideas and sociological possibilities,” shot through with the influence of her interest in the mystical religion Sufism—being closer to Stanislaw Lem than Frederick Pohl, never mind Buck Rogers. (Writing in The New York Review Of Books, Gore Vidal suggested that, if Lessing planned to continue writing science fiction, she should abandon Sufi and submit herself to the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard.) For her part, Lessing referred to her work as “space fiction,” and called the genre “a dialect for our times.”
In 1983 and 1984, Lessing pranked the publishing industry by submitting two books, The Diary Of A Good Neighbour and If The Old Could, to various publishers under the pseudonym “Jane Somers.” The novels were rejected by her usual publisher, Jonathan Cape, for being noncommercial, and were eventually issued by Michael Joseph, to little critical attention. After revealing she was the author of the books, Lessing explained that she’d “wanted to be reviewed on merit, as a new writer, without the benefit of a ‘name,’ to get free of that cage of associations and labels that every established writer has to learn to live inside.”
Lessing’s notable other works include Briefing For A Descent Into Hell (1971), Memoirs Of A Survivor (1974), The Good Terrorist (1985), The Fifth Child (1988), The Sweetest Dream (2001), Alfred And Emily (2008), and her two-volume autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking In The Shade (1997). In 2007, news cameramen recorded her reaction to the news that she was the eleventh woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature: