Doris Lessing will be remembered as one of the most powerful and socially conscientious writers of our times.
She died on November 17, 2013 at her home in West Hampstead. As the news spread in London, and then to her readers all over the world, grief and consternation quickly took over. Her loss would leave a vacuum in the world of fiction.
She will be remembered as one of the most powerful writers of our times requiring her readers to debate her personal anguish and world-weariness with the human condition and her search for individual expression and self-determination. Fiction came to her, to use the words of Raymond Williams in The Long Revolution, “as part of our actual growth, not entering a ‘special area’ of the mind, but acting on and interacting with our whole personal and social organisation.” A brilliant master of storytelling, she brought glory to herself and inspiration to others.
I first encountered Doris Lessing in the English Faculty at Cambridge in the early 1990s where I was labouring on the decline of the aristocracy. Her face was not yet so deeply creased and her hair not quite so ruffled as in her later years. I remember the brief conversation with this intensely unconventional, uninhibited activist and writer who still carried the revolutionary exuberance of her young days with a penetrating mind and a human spirit. The brief interchange was intellectually provocative especially as the Cold War had just ended and the Berlin Wall fallen. Though she spoke of her disillusionment with the leftist movement that had been the sustenance of her social and intellectual life, as well as her profound disturbance at the unravelling of the Marxist belief system she had reposed so much faith in, her radical beliefs were obvious: “Yes I called Marxism ‘the sweetest dream’ in one of my books. Then I discovered it was all a load of old socks. It seems incredible now that quite intelligent people believed in it at all.” Indeed, she left a deep-seated, profoundly meaningful impact on English radicals, lapsed Stalinists, academic Socialists and intellectual Trotskyists reflecting part of the New Left’s long-standing quarrel with the reductionism and ‘economism’ of the base-superstructure metaphor.
Moving to Southern Rhodesia at an early age, she was encouraged by her mother to read every book she could find to satisfy her intellectual curiosity. She was soon furiously writing deeply autobiographical works, wrapped up in the politics of war and its enormously desolating effect on the generation that lived between the Wars with all its inherent gloom of nihilism. More than anything else it was her parents’ experience of the First World War that had a deep impact on her life: “Well, I’ve often thought about it. I was born out of the First World War. My father’s rage at the trenches took me over when I was young and never left. It is as if that old war is in my own memory; my own consciousness. It gave me a terrible sense of foreboding, a belief that things could never be ordinary and decent, but always doom-ridden. The Great War squatted over my childhood. The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me… How was it possible that we allowed this monstrous war? Why do we allow wars still? Now we are bogged down in Iraq in an impossible situation. I’ll be pleased when I’m dead. That will let me off worrying about all these wars.”
Drawing upon her childhood memories and her experience of two failed marriages, as well as her serious engagement with politics and social concerns, she has written about the clash of cultures, the gross discrimination of racial inequality, the politics of nuclear capability, and the age-old conflict between the individual conscience and the larger social concerns. Her stories and novellas, set in Africa, published during the 1950s and 1960s, condemn the cold vicious sterility and moral deficit of the white culture in Southern Africa. In response to her political non-conformism, she was disqualified by the state from entering both Southern Rhodesia and South Africa. Her first novel, The Grass is Singing (1950) examines racial intolerance in Southern Rhodesia through the story of a hopeless marriage in a sleepy South African town, with its utterly brutal and harsh backdrop.
Her other interest has been essentially feminist, although she scoffed at the idea of being pigeonholed as a feminist writer, and often had sharp words for the forerunners for oversimplifying the conflict by being biased against men, and not being confident of opening to self-criticism. Her message to women writers is clear in her Nobel Prize speech: “Some much-publicised new writers haven’t written again, or haven’t written what they wanted to, meant to. And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears: ‘Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold onto it, don’t let it go’.”
Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962) — described by Margaret Drabble as “a novel of shocking power and blistering honesty” — was daring in its day for its open exploration of the inner lives of women. Intensely autobiographical, it deals with Africa and her experience there as well as her post-Stalinist affiliations with communism. By creating a maze of overpoweringly true stories and then through fissures indicating the dangers of “compartmentalising one’s thought processes”, she laid out her theory of fiction in this deeply self-reflexive novel that stood for the transcendence of “narrow single-mindedness” that would stifle any imagination or ingenuity.
Doris Lessing ventured where no woman had been before; she defined her life and lived by her own terms, moving in the company of John Berger, John Osborne, Bertrand Russell, Arnold Wesker and the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. Creative writing to her, in the words of Audre Lourde, a feminist, gay rights activist and public intellectual, “is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” Lessing’s work has created a pervasive awareness of a multiplicity of issues that remain appropriate in contemporary times as well. It is significant to mention as a tribute to her memory that she declined Damehood, and even titled her Nobel lecture ‘On not winning the Nobel Prize’, just to draw attention to large-scale inequality of openings and breaks for the common public, and to investigate shifting attitudes to creative writing. A woman well ahead of her time, she instilled her writing with her profoundly personal experience weaved dexterously into her left wing socio-political leanings. Margaret Atwood summed it all with her clear-cut comment that Doris Lessing was “inventive, brave, down-to-earth — she never hedged her bets or pulled her punches, doing everything with all her heart.”