Friday 23 February 2018

Obituary: Doris Lessing

Nobel Prize-winning author who caused a literary sensation

Prolific writer: Doris Lessing outside her London home in 2007
Prolific writer: Doris Lessing outside her London home in 2007
Doris Lessing as a young woman

Doris Lessing was a Nobel Prize-winning novelist and feminist flag-bearer whose controversial bestsellers stretched the boundaries of realist fiction.

Lessing, who has died aged 94, was one of the towering figures of modern literature; in the course of a writing career that spanned the latter half of the 20th Century, she commented on its grand sweeps and shed light on its many absurdities.

She was a prolific writer, producing around a book a year for nearly 60 years. They included plays, poems and short stories, but her novels, in particular The Golden Notebook, remained her best-known, best-loved and most controversial works.

A generous, open-minded character, she was, at various stages of her life, a communist, socialist, feminist, atheist, Laingian and finally a Sufi.

To each of these beliefs, she brought a tireless enthusiasm that sometimes obscured judgment. She fell for ideas, digested then, outgrew them and then moved on. While she still believed, she wrote novels out of the experience. Her interests were varied but her ability to make fascinating fiction out of life was constant.

If she had written nothing else, The Golden Notebook (1962) would have secured Doris Lessing a place in the hall of fame. With it, she wrote about "new women" in a new kind of novel, one that stretched the boundaries of realist fiction.

In 1950, she caused a sensation in the literary world with her first published novel, The Grass Is Singing. It told the story of Mary, the wife of a poor white farmer in Southern Rhodesia who, driven mad by loneliness and poverty, begins an obsessive – and eventually fatal – relationship with her black houseboy. It was immediately popular, reprinted seven times within five months. From then on, Lessing was established.

The Children of Violence series, published between 1952 and 1969, followed the adventures of one Martha Quest through adolescence, marriage, motherhood, divorce, communism and finally to the apocalypse of a Third World War. Lessing always denied any autobiographical basis for this series, but her own experiences were too similar to those of Martha's for anyone to be convinced.

In The Four-Gated City (1969), the last in the Children of Violence series, Lessing moved her writing away from the sturdy realism of her earlier novels into the realms of the fantastic and the paranormal. At the same time, she was discovering science fiction.

It was a new genre of literature for her and she found its possibilities exciting. Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) traced the internal journey of a madman, and The Memoirs of a Survivor (1975) the external travels of a woman in a post-holocaust London.

As well as being a formidable novelist, Lessing was also a talented short story writer, publishing collections alongside her other works. The best among her short story collections, for example, The Habit of Loving (1957) and To Room Nineteen (1978), are tantalising glimpses into the hearts and lives of many different kinds of people, described with a vision accentuated by the demands of brevity.

She was born Doris May Tayler on October 22, 1919, in Kermanshah, Persia, to British parents. Her father, Captain Alfred Cook Tayler, a World War I veteran, had married his nurse, Emily McVeagh.

In the mid-1920s, the Taylers moved to Southern Rhodesia where home was a 3,000-acre maize farm on the veld. There they settled down to a life of quiet but persistent economic failure. To annoy her mother, she left school at 14.

At the age of 22, she left her father's farm for the small town of Salisbury, where she earned her living as a telephone operator and clerical worker. In 1939, she married Frank Charles Wisdom. The marriage lasted five years and produced a son and a daughter.

A year after the divorce, she married Gottfried Anton Nicholas Lessing. That marriage also lasted five years and she bore another son, Peter.

In 1949, Doris Lessing left Rhodesia for England. She had her son, Peter, in her arms, £20 in her handbag and the manuscript of The Grass Is Singing in her suitcase.

She continued to produce novels until her 90th year. Informed by a reporter in 2007 that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, she replied: "Oh, Christ".

Lessing's achievements and versatility as a novelist won her many loyal readers whose devotion was tested but unshaken by her eccentricity, perversity and fickleness. Sometimes she wrote in styles that did not suit her, about ideas that did no credit to her intelligence; she even on occasion wrote badly.

Yet she remained a writer whose exuberant spill of ideas overcame these lapses and whose energy and perception kept her admirers enthralled until the last page.

Irish Independent

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