Has there ever been a more confounding woman writer than Nobel Prize (2007) author Doris Lessing, who died on November 17 at the age of 94?
Revered by female fiction and nonfiction writers—and women readers and activists—since her best-known work, The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, leapt to the forefront of our attention, unequaled in her perception and depiction of modern women, she confounded her worldwide audience by rejecting any and all feminist labels throughout her life and career.
Reveling in her irascible, pugnacious, and contrarian role, she dismissed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States as “not that terrible” compared with the toll from decades of Irish Republican Army violence. And when she received the Nobel Prize, she declared, “Oh Christ, I couldn’t care less.”
She publicly attacked, mocked, and decried the women’s movement at every opportunity, As Phyllis Chesler recently noted, “In an NPR interview with Lessing when she was just shy of her 89th birthday, the writer briskly rejected the label most frequently attached to her as a feminist icon—particularly when applied to her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook. Lessing told NPR: “Oh, It’s just stupid; I’ve seen it so often. I mean, there’s nothing feminist about The Golden Notebook.” Many of her obituaries noted that she not only said, “I think a lot of romanticizing has gone on with the women’s movement,” but added that “ modern men are ‘cowed’ by women, and men should fight back.”
How ironic, then, that so many men never returned the favor. For example, when she received her Nobel Prize, literary critic Harold Bloom said, “This is pure political correctness.”
How wrong he was.
Doris Lessing—born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919, raised on a farm in Southern Rhodesia, and largely self-educated after dropping out of high school at the age of 14— is one of the great writers of our age, her many prizes well deserved. But like many geniuses from Norman Mailer to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, her strengths were also her weaknesses. She was an unconventional and original thinker, but her search for sweeping ideologies often led her astray. Though a staunch anti-apartheid fighter, she remained a Communist decades after most had rejected Communism—until after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956—and then embraced the ideas of London’s radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing. His “belief that schizophrenia is a sane reaction to an insane world created a near-romantic idealization of madness,” declared writer Lesley Hazelton.
Whatever her limitations as a political thinker, psychologically, when it came to her fictional characters, Lessing was brilliantly right.
This was evident in her very first novel, published in 1950, The Grass Is Singing, a haunting depiction of a white, married woman’s mental disintegration in apartheid Africa. Lessing’s brilliance was subsequently confirmed in her sublime autobiographical quintet of related novels, Children of Violence, three of which were written and published in England before The Golden Notebook.
The first two Children of Violence books, Martha Quest and A Proper Marriage, were published in the U.S. as one volume in 1964, and if you’ve never read them, you have a treat in store for you. Unlike The Golden Notebook, which piled up various identities of its central character, Anna Wulf, Children of Violence is a series of realistic novels that move chronologically. Their form suited the author’s ambition, which was nothing less than capturing a universal cycle of female behavior and experience, from adolescence to middle age. Martha’s quest is not simply her own. She partakes of the eternal experiences of women in her era—courtship, marriage, childbearing (and it is a childbirth scene unequaled in contemporary literature), motherhood, divorce, departure from the provinces to a new, urban life and home.
I fell under Lessing’s spell in the 1960s and, decade after decade, have continued to marvel at her insights into the human heart and the relationship between men and women.
Doris Lessing was a remarkably prolific writer, pouring forth more than 55 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, among them some extraordinary collections of short stories and novellas, including The Grandmothers, a provocative little bombshell of a short novel recently made into a film, Adore (directed by Anne Fontaine)—in which two women, lifelong friends, fall in love with each other’s son and carry on romantic relationships with them, even after the boys marry.
She also wrote, under a pseudonym, two splendid novels about aging, to see if anyone would publish them on their own merit. Most publishers turned them down. Today, they can be found under the title Diaries of Jane Somers. Published in the 1980s, they revealed, among other things, a humane National Health Service in the U.K. far in advance of anything we still offer in the U.S.
Anyone who has followed Lessing’s career and—through biographies and an autobiography—tumultuous private life, understands that one can admire and respect the work but not necessarily the person. Michiko Kakutani, reviewing the autobiography, said Lessing’s “matter-of-fact tone” leaves “ . . . a vivid if somewhat chilling picture of the author as a self-absorbed and heedless young woman.”
In the past, it was considered unseemly for women to admit that, like men, they were aggressive, domineering, selfish, and driven in their work and careers. Fortunately, gone are the days when women pretended their careers “just happened” or they were “lucky.” Now we know that in her life, Lessing, like equally ambitious male novelists, such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, was a mix of charm and ruthlessness. Bob Gottlieb, her editor at Simon & Schuster, once described Lessing’s “willfulness and stubbornness” as being one of her many virtues. She was so fiercely inner-directed and emotionally detached that Gottlieb’s criticisms, like others’, never fazed her. She went her own way. She replaced her fierce belief in Communism with Sufism and wrote obscure sci-fi type novels which few critics—including this one—admired. Lessing famously adored her cats (and wrote about them), but, as she said, “People don’t purr.”
According to Carole Klein, her biographer, Lessing was deprived of mother love. Klein suggests that this gave her strength and independence, but also provided an emptiness she filled with fantasy and storytelling. In my view, a hallmark of Lessing’s female characters is that they have many “selves” and are trying to figure out who they really are. So, paradoxically, while Lessing appears to have been a single-minded and controlling personality, her characters do not appear to be that way at all. In fact, their striving to figure out who they are strikes a universal chord in contemporary women who are constantly juggling their many selves.
Lessing seems to have embraced old age. She acknowledged her sorrow at no longer being pretty, but as a writer insisted that there are many advantages to being older and unnoticed. Yet at midlife, she did have an affair with a much younger man and wrote about it in Love, Again. One senses that certain subjects, like love, aging, and parenting, were itches that she continued to creatively scratch.
The definitive biography of Lessing has yet to be written. Nevertheless, what is blazingly clear is that instead of being defeated by her difficult childhood, unloving mother, and lack of formal education, she overcame these circumstances, was strengthened by them, and drew upon them in an imaginative way to become one of the outstanding writers of our era.
For now, we are left with a powerful, daring, and moving body of work that will be read and reread by generations of grateful readers for decades to come.