Her hundredth anniversary is a great opportunity to look at Lessing’s writing and take stock of her immense contribution to the world of ideas, writing and intervention
Doris Lessing died in 2013, six years after she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. Her hundredth anniversary falls on October 22, 2019, six years after her passing. This hundredth anniversary is a great opportunity to look at Lessing’s writing and fiction and take stock of her immense and significant contribution to the world of ideas, writing and intervention.
Lessing dropped out of formal schooling since in her generation the concept of universal schooling was still in the process of becoming a State priority, and, where, routinely, it was the norm that women rarely followed up with a university education. Lessing also belonged to the generation that was born and came of age between World Wars I and II.
In the last decades of the 20th century, Lessing admitted that although communism was viewed by her generation as a new religion with Utopian possibilities, ushering in justice for everyone, this turned out to be a fallacious belief
She was born on October 22, 1919, in Kermanshah (formerly Persia) to war veteran Tayler and his wife Maud McVeagh, a nurse in the London Hospital, who nursed him back to health. Lessing’s parents moved out of England, first to Persia and subsequently to Southern Rhodesia where she lived till 1948. Raised in a white colony where a sizeable number of the population were black people with little or no rights, Lessing could have become part of the elite minority and lived comfortably in Zimbabwe, but her years of living on the veldt with books from England as her constant companions, made her seek out an altogether different destiny for herself.
Moving out of home at an early age, she worked as nursemaid, receptionist, stenographer and journalist, refusing to pursue a training in music or education that her mother felt was earmarked for her. Autodidactic, she engaged with ideas and political movements and became a member of the Communist Party, identifying with its goals.
Finding Salisbury provincial and conservative, she left for England in 1949, setting up home as a single parent to Peter, her son from her second marriage to Gottfreid Lessing. Lessing worked freelance, editing, writing and reading. Her first novel The Grass is Singing published in 1950, heralded the arrival of a new voice, that was critical of Eurocentric perspectives.
At the time of writing this novel, Lessing was deeply inspired by the ideals of the Communist Party. The novel’s white protagonist, Mary, is shown as part of the ruling elite in fictionalised Africa, and Lessing draws the reader’s attention to the complicit silence around both race and gender. She also remains sharply critical of the control of black lands by the white elite, drawing attention to rampant commercialisation and increasing insensitivity to the land and its original inhabitants.
Lessing was mistakenly identified as part of the angry young men who drew attention to the condition of England in the 1950s. However, her oeuvre extended beyond, questioning the boundaries and structures set up by the Occident. In fact, her recognition of the limitations of white middle class feminism are articulated succinctly in her very first novel.
Lessing’s subsequent novels repeatedly raise the questions of race, class and gender, weaving autobiography and fact through a series entitled the Children of Violence. The first three novels in the series are set in the realist narrative mode, but the last two novels break away from this genre offering dystopic and futuristic projections, making for engaging readings of Africa and England from the 1950s to the 1980s.
By the 1960s, Lessing recognised that our world was headed for difficult
times. Each one of her subsequent narratives explores and underlines this predicament.
Her magnum opus, The Golden Notebook (1962) prophetically
envisages many of the concerns raised during the second wave of women’s movements. The Golden Notebook has women protagonists, and celebrates female friendships, yet it also records through its black, red, yellow and blue notebooks the different kinds of wars being staged in different parts of the world and the deep-rooted schisms that divide not merely individuals, but also communities, races and genders.
In her preface to The Golden Notebook in 1971, Lessing speaks of the urgent need to embrace the knowledge about the cataclysmic changes happening in our world. Fifty years after, the cataclysmic changes have only continued to accelerate. Lessing’s forays into science fiction and into what she terms “inner space travels” constantly unveil to us fragmented beings trying to making sense of a harsh world.
There is also a remarkable body of short stories, collected and African memoirs and non-fiction that give us glimpses into intensely lived lives and provide a detailed examination of lives and issues in the 20th century.
Lessing was banned from visiting South Africa and Southern Rhodesia for a long time and allegedly the Secret Service in London spied on her for over 20s years because of her Left leanings
The shape of Lessing’s novels shift, moving from science fiction to history and myth, and plunge back into realism. The plethora of genres, landscapes and characters, however, continue to draw attention to fragmented and vulnerable individuals in a world that continues to be hostile. Lessing’s concern in her later fiction is voiced through several journeying protagonists, both men and women, who try to make sense of the world they inhabit. Lessing draws attention to the shored up ruins, despite the solutions offered by “grandfathers Marx and Freud”.
Exploring both communism and psychoanalysis, two systems that had captured the imagination of the 20th century in terms of their possibilities, Lessing shows us the strengths and limitations that beset them. Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1982) speak about the after effects on cities as a result of exploitative and greedy inhabitants. Memoirs of a Survivor shows us the damage done to an entire city as a result of the aggression and isolation that is generated within primary social units comprising the family. The city is broken down and bands of children run amok.
Briefing for a Descent into Hell makes us stare into the heart of a dystopia, created by human greed and hatred for all other species. The nightmare vision of its protagonist Charles Watkins also looks at systems of control and manipulation exercised upon Watkins by medicated drugs.
Lessing examines the cocktail of power and violence that create the ambience for terrorism in The Good Terrorist (1985) and allows us glimpses of a beleaguered nuclear family in The Fifth Child (1988) when an autistic child is raised alongside normative siblings, showing us the fragility of private microcosms. When this child, abandoned by his family, drifts into the world, the sequel Ben in the World ( 2000) reveals how the world outside the home is extremely predatory and hostile, allowing only the fittest to survive.
In the last decades of the 20th century, Lessing admitted that although communism was viewed by her generation as a new religion with Utopian possibilities, ushering in justice and fair play for everyone, this turned out to be a fallacious belief. She went on to declare that “we are all put here for a purpose” perhaps jostling the privileged (West) into engaging not merely with their rights, but also with their responsibilities.
She continued to turn out fiction for another 20 years, drawing upon the realms of realism, memory, myth, science, autobiography and history to raise significant questions about the chaos and suffering that privileged citizens had unleashed upon the world.
Mara and Dann (1999) highlights climate change and the sweeping threat it represents for all species. In The Sweetest Dream (2001), Lessing talks about a different kind of revolution; one that begins in the hearth or the kitchen, where cooking and sharing of food are presented as important activities. The privileged who eat at this kitchen undertake further acts of sustenance, choosing to engage and provide support systems that sustain and nourish those less fortunate.
This may be an idea which is dreamlike, but the novel provides a critical examination of how the hubris of the heroic male led to the decline and failure of communism. Lessing breathes life into the quotidian, drawing attention to the infinite possibilities that little acts of goodness and kindness can bring about globally.
It is perhaps in the fitness of things that she received the Nobel Prize in 2007 for a lifetime of writing. Today, her anxieties about the exploitation of nature, environmental degradation, small wars being fought all over the world by different groups, State control and climate change resonate far more than they probably did when she first wrote about them.
Lessing is not a great stylist, and she has often been attacked for her unwieldly prose. However, her canvas has been diverse and expansive and she has been prescient about a whole lot of issues that concern the human race. Her body of writing shares much in common with a well-oiled car with abundant horsepower that can take its reader smoothly along on a long journey, providing glimpses into vistas never seen before.
Lessing’s long and short novels impel the reader into stretching out and strengthening thought processes. The comfort level she establishes in every novel allows for a life-long connect with her writing and enables an ongoing conversation on diverse facets, affording valuable insights into the human predicament.
When Lessing died in 2013, her illness left her unaware of the tremendous contribution she had made in her individual capacity as parent, friend, anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear activist. She was a mentor and a manager of her finances, generated out of her career as a writer. She also turned down the title of ‘Dame of the British Empire’ as obsolete and irrelevant.
Lessing was banned from visiting South Africa and Southern Rhodesia for a long time and allegedly the Secret Service in London spied on her for over 20s years because of her Left leanings. Although she was unable to nurture Sylvia Plath, inviting Jenny Diski into her home and mentoring her into a sensitive and gifted novelist allowed the world the extraordinary work of one more gifted writer.
The Golden Notebook has women protagonists, and celebrates female friendships, yet it also records the wars being staged in different parts of the world and the schisms that divide not merely individuals, but also communities, races and genders.
In her public life, through her writing and her espousal of charitable causes, Lessing redistributed surplus cash resources that came her way as literary awards. She also donated money for the Afghan cause and towards children’s libraries in Zimbabwe.
The vagaries of old age claimed her, pretty much in the same relentless way in which the best and brightest among us are taken away. This hundredth anniversary is a very good time to engage with Lessing’s writing, choosing from the extant range of genres and narratives. I would recommend both volumes of Lessing’s Autobiographies for any reader interested in more details of her extraordinary life.
There are various volumes of short stories which convey to us the complexity and heft of the 20th century. Mara and Dann (1999) has a mythic quality about it that would be of interest to any reader curious about Lessing’s warnings on the environmental crisis we have at hand, made worse by vicious wrangling on the part of human beings. It is also a moving story of the bond between siblings and the power of hope that propels a brother and sister who grow up in the midst of mayhem and climate change to find their way through a rapidly crumbling world that continues to lose more of its signposts.
The Cleft (2007), more anthropomorphic, is located in the beginning of time and in a female bastion wherein hermaphroditic women, raise female offsprings and discard all male progeny thereby promoting female ascendency singularly and I leave the curious reader to find out how this book concludes.Alfred and Emily (2008) is a fictionalised biography of lives Lessing’s parents could have led in England, had they never left it for distant pastures. She displays her continued mastery over the realist genre. Reading, rereading or discovering Doris Lessing’s fiction would be a fitting tribute to this prolific and versatile writer