Doris Lessing published over 50 books, fighting in her work for freedom from oppression, categorisation and compartmentalisation. Her death, at the age of 94, leaves an absence of one of Southern Africa’s great voices – but also one of its great personalities. By MAUREEN ISAACSON.
Doris Lessing’s death at 94 this week brought a rush of memories as her famous response to the newspaper reporters waiting to inform her of the news that she had won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature outside her house in North London was repeatedly recalled. “Oh Christ!” she said.
Elsewhere the news hit like a slap with a damp rag. Among writers who had braved choppy currents to write what they liked, like Philip Roth, like Salman Rushdie, were those habitually tipped to win that year and habitually also tipped to be snubbed. Doris Lessing’s name did not really crop up on the lists of those who were hoping an African writer would win the prize that year.
The 1986 Nigerian laureate, Wole Soyinka, told me in an interview for the South African Sunday Independent in 1995, “If you have a social conscience, you are no longer satisfied with explaining the misery, you are feeding on rags and lice and sores. As a citizen you are compelled to eliminate even that material on which your work thrives.” It was not as if Lessing’s conscience had deserted its moorings, but her novels had exchanged the realistic Southern African landscape for the indeterminate space of fiction that did not directly endorse the struggle on this side of the world.
When she died on Sunday, Nadine Gordimer, the first South African Nobel literature laureate who in 1991 became the first woman to win the prize after 27 years, said she had “lost a comrade writer”, recalling that she and Doris Lessing had been “discovered” by Amelia Levy, who published their short stories in a local journal, Jewish and Christian Thought – though this applied to neither writer – some six decades ago.
The 2006 laureate, Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist, brought to the attention of the world the issue of press freedom and the trial he faced for speaking out against Turkey’s denial of the Armenian massacre. Harold Pinter, who won the prize the previous year, spoke volubly against the war in Iraq.
What would Doris Lessing speak about, I wondered. The platform provided by the Nobel Prize had unparalleled stature. Gordimer has frequently quoted the 1957 French Algerian laureate Albert Camus: “From the moment that I am no more than a writer, I shall cease to write.” And since JM Coetzee became the second South African Nobel laureate in 2003, it may be some years before it came around again, we thought. Among African writers tipped to win were the Nigerian, Chinua Achebe, the Kenyan, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Somalian, Nurudin Farah. In South Africa, surely Zakes Mda, in whose burgeoning body of work magical realism and social realism collide to tell the compelling South African story, was deserving too.
But because Lessing had broken bounds, it did not mean she had lost the plot. A novel, Alfred and Emily, not yet published at the time of her Nobel award announcement, is an indictment of war. She had said it draws on the experience of her own parents during the Second World War.
When Lessing came to South Africa in 1995 to promote Under the Skin, the first volume of her autobiography, she spoke in an interview about her parents. Her mother, Emily Maude Taylor, was a nurse during the war and the man she loved had drowned in a torpedoed ship. She married Alfred Cook Taylor, a bank official, a captain in the British army during the First World War, left shell-shocked, his shrapnel-scarred stump itching in the bucket of a wooden leg.
Doris Lessing was born Doris May Taylor in 1919 in Kermanshah in Persia (now Bakhtaran in Iran). In 1925, the family moved to a farm in then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. From the age of five, her home, “that emotional wasteland”, was to be a thatched roof and house furnished with paraffin crates and Liberty curtains.
She was packed off to boarding school at seven and at 14 she dropped out and took a string of mindless jobs. Under My Skin offered window on her earlier, rebellious and sometimes cruel and arrogant selves. In her seventies, when I interviewed her, she was yet to lay the ghosts of her past to rest. She spoke about her troubled relationship with her mother, her rebellion, which was not inconsiderable; the rage that had caused her to burn down the dog’s shelter and inadvertently, the storeroom, also ignited her great refusal: “I will not” was her biographical leitmotif. She spoke too about her failed marriages. Her first, at 19, was to Frank Charles Wisdom; it yielded a son, John, and a daughter, Jean. She left him with their small children and “a revolutionary romanticism” had her bumbling into a second marriage, to Gottfried Lessing, a German-Jewish immigrant, and a Marxist. She became involved with the Labour Party in Southern Rhodesia. With Gottfried, she had a son, Peter, whom she took with her to London when they divorced. She had fallen out of love with Gottfried and after a spell of serving the British Communist Party she fell out of love with communism.
In our interview she plotted a graph of her life, which had been rich and rewarding albeit its trials. By 1995, she had won most of the big literary prizes but she did not foresee such acclaim. Our own relationship had got off to a rocky start. Reading my appreciative review of Under My Skin, which also pointed to some of its contradictions, she asked, “Was there nothing else you could say?” But we got past this hurdle and into the easier terrain suggested by the title she had cadged from Cole Porter.
She was a young woman “sensitised by music… a young woman in love with her own body.” The world and its music had induced a romantic longing but it had broken its promises. She talked about her routine daily writing at 9am, the young friends with whom she walked on Hampstead Heath, close to her home, and her engagement with Sufism.
She opened up generously and she left me inspired, encouraged and richer for this encounter.
Lessing said if she had stayed in Southern Africa, she would not have explored her imagination beyond the realism she described in her earlier works. She said her subject would have chosen her.
When her Nobel laureateship was announced, I worried that the keen political interest and engagement with the world that made her early novels so compelling, had been replaced by less vital works of science fiction.
She would have disagreed. In our interview she reacted to the notion that science fiction and space fiction shy away from socio-political criticism. In the preface to the Doris Lessing Reader (1989), she wrote that the divisions between realistic and imaginative writing were exaggerated.
“I am damned if I can see much difference between some parts of The Grass is Singing (1950), my first novel, and some parts of Shikasta (1979)”. Shikasta, a planet, has suffered the ravages of colonialism and white supremacy. The Grass is Singing, about the murder of a white farmer’s wife, and her relationship with a black servant, deals penetratingly with similar themes.
Lessing wrote in the same introduction that every writer carries “a cargo of characters, impressions and ideas and although these modify and develop and change, seldom does anything new come in”.
The Swedish Academy citation described Lessing as “that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”.
The Golden Notebook (1962) was seized by the feminist movement as a primer for women, although it dealt with contemporary issues. In a 2006 interview, Lessing said that the book had come out of turmoil in her own life and that she had not intended to make any feminist statements.
Unlike VS Naipaul, whose 2001 Nobel Prize baffled critics of his recalcitrant politics and triggered questions about whether ugly people writing beautifully were deserving of such acclaim, Lessing was a safe choice. For some, she was too safe. Harold Bloom, the American critic, said the choice was “pure political correctness”. The “Canopus in Argos” series, which began with “Re: Colonized Planet 5, Shikasta” in 1979, came as a surprise, leaving fans of Lessing’s realism bereft. Philip Glass turned two novels from this series, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, into an opera, as well as turning The Marriages between Zones Three, Four and Five into operas.
Lessing published over 50 books, and in her work she fought for freedom, of women and people oppressed everywhere as she asserted her right to change and against all kinds of boxing and what she called compartmentalisation, of thought and articulation.
Per Wästberg, the chair of the Nobel Literature Committee, stressed that the committee does not in its choice of laureates favour any one country. “I must strongly emphasise that according to rules we do not care for any nation or any one part of world, and are not influenced by gender, sex, religion, whatever.”
This does not mean our disappointment that there were more compelling and exciting voices than Lessing’s telling the stories of the continent in 2007 makes us parochial. Nor does it detract from the considerable mark she has left. DM
Photo: Doris Lessing waits to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature at the Wallace Collection in London January 30, 2008. REUTERS/Toby Melville