By Helen T. Verongos
Ms. Lessing in 1962, the year of “The Golden Notebook”/ Oswald Jones/Abergavenny Museum
Doris Lessing, the uninhibited and outspoken novelist who won the 2007 Nobel Prizefor a lifetime of writing that shattered convention, both social and artistic, died on Sunday at her home in London. She was 94. Her death was confirmed by her publisher, HarperCollins.
Ms. Lessing produced dozens of novels, short stories, essays and poems, drawing on a childhood in the Central African bush, the teachings of Eastern mystics and involvement with grass-roots Communist groups. She embarked on dizzying and, at times, stultifying literary experiments.
But it was her breakthrough novel, “The Golden Notebook,” a structurally inventive and loosely autobiographical tale, that remained her best-known work. The 1962 book was daring in its day for its frank exploration of the inner lives of women who, unencumbered by marriage, were free to raise children, or not, and pursue work and their sex lives as they chose. The book dealt openly with topics like menstruation and orgasm, as well as with the mechanics of emotional breakdown.
Her editor at HarperCollins, Nicholas Pearson, said on Sunday that “The Golden Notebook” had been a handbook for a whole generation.
As a writer, from colonial Africa to modern London, Ms. Lessing scrutinized relationships between men and women, social inequities and racial divisions. As a woman, she pursued her own interests and desires, professional, political and sexual.
Seeking what she considered a free life, she abandoned two young children. Still, Salon, in an interview with Ms. Lessing in 1997, said that “with her center-parted hair that’s pulled back into a bun and her steely eyes, she seems like a tightly wound earth mother.”
It was this figure, 10 years later, who arrived at her house in sensible shoes to find journalists gathered at her door waiting to tell her that she had won the Nobel Prize for literature.“Oh, Christ!” she said upon hearing the news, adding, “I couldn’t care less.”
The Nobel announcement called her “the epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.”
And in the presentation speech at the Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm, Ms. Lessing was described as having “personified the woman’s role in the 20th century.” (She accepted the prize at a ceremony in London.)
The cavalier and curmudgeonly Ms. Lessing was making headlines again a few days after the announcement, dismissing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States as “not that terrible” compared to the toll from decades of Irish Republican Army violence.
‘The Golden Notebook’
“The Golden Notebook,” which critics generally consider her best novel, has been published in many languages, and 50 years after it first appeared, it is still in print. It consists of a conventional novel, “Free Women,” and several notebooks, each in a different color, 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.
Ms. Lessing wrote that she had intended the novel to capture the chaotic period after the Soviet Union officially renounced Stalinism. Under the pressure of the revelations about Stalin’s crimes, the movement that had been the glue of her social and intellectual circle came undone.
She considered the novel to be a triumph of structure. By fragmenting the story, she said, she wanted to show the danger of compartmentalizing one’s thinking, the idea that “any kind of single-mindedness, narrowness, obsession, was bound to lead to mental disorder, if not madness.”
But her 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, Ms. Lessing had sharp words for feminists.
Speaking at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan 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.”
While some ideas embraced by the women’s movement came naturally to her, she differed with the movement on some issues in “Under My Skin,” the first volume of her autobiography, published in 1994. On sexual harassment, for example, she wrote that “contemporary women scream or swoon at the sight of a penis they have not been introduced to, feel demeaned by a suggestive remark and send for a lawyer if a man pays them a compliment.”
Doris May Tayler was born on Oct. 22, 1919, in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran), the first child of Alfred Cook Tayler, a British bank official, and the former Emily Maude McVeagh. Mr. Tayler was injured in World War I and lost a leg. Miss McVeagh was his nurse.
Ms. Lessing wrote in “Under My Skin” that her birth was a disappointment to them, and that the doctor who delivered her had to come up with a name because her parents had rejected the possibility that they might have a girl.
Her descriptions of growing up are colored by resentment toward her mother, who never let her forget how much she had sacrificed for her children. She found an ally of sorts in her father, but he also seeded her childhood with stories of World War I, which Ms. Lessing said imbued her with fatalism.
The family moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), determined to make its fortune farming corn. On the farm, Doris was taught by her mother and read all the books she could find. She was sent to boarding school and then to a convent school.
Convent school turned her into a Roman Catholic, but her 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 Southern Rhodesia’s capital, Salisbury, and between those stints wrote and tore up two novels.
In Salisbury, where there was a shortage of women, Doris had her pick of partners for dancing, films and drinks at the Sports Club. Looking back, she singled out the dance music as the most seductive influence, but underlying it, she wrote, was nature “preparing us to replenish the population between world wars.”
The force exerted itself quickly. She managed to disengage Frank Wisdom, a civil servant, from his fiancée, and married him in 1939. She wrote that she was pregnant at the time but did not know it.
She sought an abortion several times, but each time some circumstance intervened, she wrote. When she finally was told the pregnancy was too far advanced, she went home relieved. In retrospect, she said, “now it seems to me obvious I knew all the time I was pregnant, was in alliance with nature against myself.”
Her first child, John, exhausted her. But she found solace when she drifted into a group whose members considered themselves revolutionaries. She was excited by their ideas and became, in effect, a Communist.
Ms. Lessing began distributing the South African Communist Party newspaper and protesting the “color bar” laws that kept power in the hands of the white minority.
In 1943, her daughter, Jean, was born. By this point, the author was disillusioned with being a Salisbury matron, and Jean spent much of her first year in the care of others.
Striking Off on Her Own
Finally, Ms. Lessing decided to leave her children, her husband and her home to pursue her ideals and life with her friends and comrades. She moved out of the family home to a rented room, took a job as a typist and kept up with news of the children through a relative. This drastic step was accorded no more than a few pages in her autobiography, and she dwelled on neither her reasons nor her regrets at any length in interviews.
“I couldn’t stand that life,” Ms. Lessing said in the Salon interview. “It’s this business of giving all the time, day and night, trying to conform to something you hate.”
If she had stayed with her family, she would have infected the children with the sense of doom she carried within her “like a defective gene,” she explained in “Under My Skin.”
With this idea, “I was protecting myself because I knew I was going to leave,” she wrote. “Yet I did not know it, could not say, I am going to commit the unforgivable and leave two small children.”
She also wrote that she was having an affair at the time, but did not consider it to be an important factor in her decision.
Michiko Kakutani, reviewing the first volume of the autobiography in The New York Times, said Ms. Lessing’s “matter-of-fact tone” in writing about this period leaves “a vivid, if somewhat chilling picture of the author as a self-absorbed and heedless young woman.” (The second volume, “Walking in the Shade,” covered the years 1949 to 1962).
In 1943, she married Gottfried Anton Nicolai Lessing, a German Communist, because, she said, it was her “revolutionary duty” to protect him in a wartime environment hostile to Germans. Their plan was to divorce after the war. They had a son, Peter.
It was during this marriage, which was interlaced with affairs on both sides, that Ms. Lessing had what she called “that classical love affair every woman should have just once.” When she began to fantasize about having a baby with her married lover, she decided that she had to outsmart nature with sterilization surgery.
Her divorce from Mr. Lessing went according to plan. In 1949, she departed for England, taking her son Peter as well as the manuscript to her first novel, “The Grass Is Singing,” about the relationship between a white farmer’s wife and her black male servant. It was published in 1950 to a warm reception and was later adapted as a film. Her first volume of short stories, “This Was the Old Chief’s Country,” appeared the next year.
Her five-novel series “The Children of Violence” explores coming of age in British colonial Africa, marrying and bearing children there and moving to London. This weighty series of books — “Martha Quest” (1952), “A Proper Marriage” (1954), “A Ripple From the Storm” (1958), “Landlocked” (1965) and “The Four-Gated City” (1969) — remolds some of the issues and situations treated in “The Golden Notebook”: war, Communism, sex, abortion, domestic violence, abandoning children, psychoanalysis and breakdown. But the series reaches forward to the next millennium and the destruction of the earth.
Many of Ms. Lessing’s novels are long, dense and complex. Her prose, one critic said, can be “indigestible.” J. M. Coetzee wrote that “Lessing has never been a great stylist — she writes too fast and prunes too lightly for that.”
Into Science Fiction
When she entered the realm of science fiction, she disappointed some of her staunchest supporters. Her “Canopus in Argos” series, which began with “Re: Colonized Planet 5, Shikasta” in 1979, was greeted with both surprise and regret.
John Leonard, who classified “The Golden Notebook” among “the sacred texts of our time,” reviewed “The Making of the Representative for Planet 8,” one of the books in the series, in 1982, saying: “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.”
She adapted that book and another work from the series as an opera, “The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five,” with Philip Glass.
In the 1980s she published what amounted to a joke on the publishing industry and on critics, two books written — and submitted to publishers — under the pseudonym Jane Somers: “The Diary of a Good Neighbour” and “If the Old Could.” Both were rejected by Jonathan Cape, which had long been her British publisher.
As she had predicted, once they were published, they received little critical attention. Later, they were rereleased in one volume under Ms. Lessing’s name as “The Diaries of Jane Somers,” a book praised for the way it portrayed growing old in Britain.
“Alfred & Emily,”published in 2008, is half-fiction, half-memoir — on the one hand recounting her parents’ lives as they eked out a living on a small farm in what was then Southern Rhodesia and, on the other, imagining what their lives might have been like if World War I had not occurred.
Among the major influences on her thought, Ms. Lessing named Communism and Sufism. In between she embraced the psychiatry of R .D. Laing. She also counted Central Africa, World War I and her reading.
And, of course, there is her mother, who keeps arising in one guise or another. After reading the first volume of her autobiography, Mr. Coetzee commented: “There is something depressing in the spectacle of a woman in her 70s still wrestling with an unsubjugated ghost from the past. On the other hand, there is no denying the grandeur of the spectacle when the protagonist is as mordantly honest and passionately desirous of salvation as Doris Lessing.”
Later in life, she divorced herself from all “isms,” stridently expressing opinions that were often contentious. Her Nobel acceptance speech(delivered for her by her editor) contrasted traditional printed literature with the Internet’s “inanities.”
Readers did not stop interpreting her work in ways that infuriated her.
In “The Fifth Child,” published in 1988, Ms. Lessing wrote of an attractive family with four children that is shattered by the birth of the fifth, a monstrous aberration. She said the book tapped a reservoir of inner grief, and she was outraged at the response to the novel, which, she said, “was at once pigeonholed as being about the Palestinianproblem, genetic research, feminism, anti-Semitism and so on.”
In 2000 she published “Ben in the World,” a sequel to “The Fifth Child,” and in 2002 “The Sweetest Dream,” a fictional account focusing on the 1960s that she said would stand in for her third volume of autobiography. In her review in The Times, Ms. Kakutani called “The Sweetest Dream” “a novel whose moments of brilliance are obscured by reams of tiresome exposition, hokey plot twists and astonishingly opaque characters.”
Ms. Lessing’s survivors include her daughter, Jean Cowen, who lives in South Africa, and two granddaughters. Her son John Wisdom, a farmer in Zimbabwe, died in 1992. The Guardian of London reported that her son Peter died three weeks ago.
After a stroke, in the late 1990s, Ms. Lessing said she would no longer travel. Constantly reminded of her mortality, she said she became consumed with deciding what she should write in the precious time that remained.
But in discussing her writing in 2008, she said: “It has stopped; I don’t have any energy anymore. This is why I keep telling anyone younger than me, don’t imagine you’ll have it forever. Use it while you’ve got it because it’ll go; it’s sliding away like water down a plug hole.”
Emma G. Fitzsimmons contributed to this report.