A hundred years after her birth – and six on from her death – opinion on Doris Lessing seems as divided as ever. Benjamin Ivry asks whether the controversy is warranted.
Most recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature are no longer subjects of controversy by the time their centenaries are celebrated, but Doris Lessing – who was born in October 1919 – is unusual on this, among other, accounts.
In 2016, when the acclaimed younger novelist Zadie Smith was asked by the New York Times to name authors she found “disappointing, overrated, just not good,” she cited “Doris Lessing, though I am a feminist”.
Back when the announcement was made that Lessing had been awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, the American literary critic Harold Bloom responded: “Although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable.” He added that giving the prize to Lessing was “pure political correctness.” Yet in January of this year, Margaret Drabble mentioned as a book that had changed her life, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.
One might expect a consensus to have formed somewhere between adulation and dismissal, but then Lessing died as recently as 2013, just short of her 95th birthday. Perhaps her proximity makes even renowned authors somewhat at a loss when asked to weigh her achievement.
Shortly after Lessing’s death, in November 2013, Margaret Atwood wrote in the Guardian: “As we age, we face a choice of caricatures; for women writers vis à vis younger ones, it’s Cruella De Vil versus Glinda the Good. I encountered my share of Cruellas along the way, but Doris Lessing was one of the Glindas.”
Even before publication of the much-anticipated Golden Woman: The Authorized Biography of Doris Lessing, by Patrick French (from Fourth Estate, announced for September 2020), we may assert that Lessing probably would have snorted loudly about being likened to the sappy Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz, incarnated onscreen by the dizzy character actress Billie Burke.
By contrast, Lessing made rather a point of relishing her reputation as a curmudgeon. At the formal Nobel ceremony at the Wallace Collection in London, after Lessing had refused to travel to Stockholm for medical reasons, Swedish Ambassador Staffan Carlsson termed her “forever young and wise, old and rebellious… the least ingratiating of writers”.
All of the aforementioned judgments about the un-ingratiating Glinda are inevitably summary and reductive about a writer who produced 55 books, including over two dozen novels, plus plays, poetry, essays, and memoirs. The Swedish Academy noted in its citation that the “burgeoning feminist movement saw The Golden Notebook (1962) as a pioneering work and it belongs to a handful of books that informed the 20th century’s view of male-female relations”.
Yet limiting Lessing to the category of “epicist of female experience,” as the Swedes did, possibly promoted further misunderstanding. Lessing would later make repeated comments defending the male gender and expressing disappointment with the feminist movement, to the point of expressing disdain for the feminist literary icon Sylvia Plath.
The Golden Notebook certainly depicted women’s life experiences, but its primary focus, as Lessing pointed out repeatedly, is outlined at the very start of the novel:
Chapter 1. Free Women 1
Anna meets her friend Molly in the summer of 1957 after a separation…
The two women were alone in the London flat.
‘The point is,’ said Anna, as her friend came back from the telephone on the landing, ‘the point is, that as far as I can see, everything’s cracking up.’
The fragmentation of modern life, to the point of emotional collapse, is an essential theme of The Golden Notebook, rather than feminism per se. Indeed, Lessing often made public statements clearly intended to dismay feminists. Her literary subjects were far more diverse, including colonialism, religious extremism, racism, terrorism, war, nuclear power, radical politics, Africa, psychiatry, and mysticism.
Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), which some readers irksomely preferred to her later works, evoked colonial Rhodesia in apt aphorisms: “In university they don’t tell you that the greater part of the law is learning to tolerate fools” and “It is terrible to destroy a person’s picture of himself in the interests of truth or some other abstraction”.
Anyone expecting a dainty literary stylist would likely be disappointed with Lessing, since reading her can be like having a pub discussion with someone who pokes you in the chest with stubby fingers to emphasise a point. She further explored the stupid tyranny of colonialism in her memoirs Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997), as well as five novels in the Children of Violence series – Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965), and The Four-Gated City (1969).
Born to British parents in Iran, she moved with her family, who were traumatised by the Great War, to Southern Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe), where she lived until transferring permanently to London in 1949. During her troubled youth, she stopped formal education at the age of 14 and thereafter was self-educated by reading.
The great Russian novelists provided lastingly important for her, but in later life she would sometimes be inspired by wayward texts by controversial figures such as Idries Shah, the promoter of Sufism in the West who was slated by scholars for his amateurish approach to research.
Her personal library included an enthusiastically annotated copy of The Teachers of Gurdjieff by Rafael Lefort, much admired by Lessing despite being decried by Gurdjieff biographer James Moore as a “distasteful fabrication”. In addition to traditional literature, Lessing devoured such offbeat literature as The New Soviet Psychic Discoveries, The Cat in the Mysteries of Religion and Magic, and Is This Your Day? How Biorhythm Helps You Determine Your Life Cycles.
Unlike her friend Muriel Spark, whose novel Aiding and Abetting (2000) referred to pseudoscience and charlatanism with the mastery of someone who worked in the black propaganda division for MI6 during the Second World War, Lessing genuinely enthused about claims that she would usually admit, sometimes decades later, were specious.
A centenary exhibit on display until February 2020 at the University of East Anglia, which houses her literary archive, inevitably places focus on Lessing’s life, motivated by strong willpower.
Jenny Diski’s In Gratitude (2016, Bloomsbury) describes how Lessing could be moved by intellectual resolve rather than affection, determined to fulfil Sufi goals in personal growth.
To this end, Lessing offered shelter to Diski, a troubled teenager lodging at the Lady Chichester psychiatric hospital in Hove, without any overt affection or personal feeling involved.
The spiritual motivation of Sufism followed earlier inner moral resolve with an intellectual component that she had seen and admired in some of her Marxist friends. Despite eventually discarding Communism in 1956, she retained personal admiration for the rigorous thought of some of its adherents.
No account of Lessing’s personal life, however brief, can omit her leaving her two eldest children back in Rhodesia with in-laws when she fled her second husband. Among the reiterative mea culpas Lessing gave over the years, she informed the Guardian in 2007 that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had done worse, although she did not mean to directly compare herself to the 18th century French philosopher.
Rousseau had condemned five of his illegitimate children to almost certain deaths in an orphanage. But when Lessing moved to London, she brought her infant son Peter, whom she tended through medical difficulties for the rest of her life.
Lessing freely discoursed to journalists on such intimate matters despite claiming to loathe interviews.
She informed the Chicago Sun-Times in October 1969: “I keep on writing… I consider that professionalism. But I don’t see the use of it sometimes. I really do believe there’s no use. Sometime in the next few years it’s all going to end. It will be the bomb, or bacterial warfare, or we’ll simply foul our environment beyond help. We’re too stupid to make the decisions we have to make, and so we’ll commit suicide. Sometimes I think man is programmed to destroy himself. So writing novels is a useless occupation.”
Her Nobel Prize lecture, about how precious books are to impoverished people with apparently nothing else to live for, communicates a warmth and passion that may explain why for many readers, Lessing remains an endearing model of writerly engagement, despite abiding controversies and ill-advised espousals.