November 20, 2013

Doris Lessing 1922 – 2013


Doris Lessing.

Doris Lessing died on Sunday. She was the author of numerous novels, short story collections, plays, librettos and memoirs, and her work spanned multiple genres and modes of inquiry as it reckoned with questions surrounding human existence and purpose in the modern age. She was the recipient of numerous awards and honors including the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Lessing was born in Iran on October 22, 1919 to British parents and was raised in Zimbabwe where she received her formal education. She was married twice and had three children, but the desire for personal freedom and intellectual development led her to seek out her own life in London, and following the divorce from her second husband in 1949 she did not marry again.

She was a divisive figure, never short of admirers, whose work was not confined by the expectations—nor the reactions—of the literary elite. Her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook, was an epic work of female introspection that for many felt like the voice of their generation. In it Lessing effortlessly moved through a series of taboos including descriptions of menstruation and the female orgasm, as well as the rejection of motherhood for personal freedom.

She went on to write dozens more books including the Children of Violence sequence which depicts the social and intellectual development of a young woman as she navigates the culture and upheaval of the twentieth century, and the Canopus in Argus sequence which depicts the evolution of civilizations and cultures over huge stretches of time.

Lessing was known for her feisty and sometimes problematic opinions, such as her exhortation to feminists to stop the oppression of men, claiming that women’s advances had come “at a cost to men,”  and her remarks shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 that the events of September 11, 2001, were “terrible… [but] not that terrible.”

When she first learned of her Nobel win she said she “couldn’t care less.” She did, however, go on to accept the award and gave a rousing speech on poverty, privilege, and the innate human desire to tell stories.

Lessing’s unconventional work and opinions earned her many fans, from fellow authors such as Junot Diaz to Margaret Atwood to an American fringe cult that took her 1979 novel Shikasta as gospel. When the cult’s admirers wrote to Lessing inquiring when the gods would make their appearance on Earth she fired back a sharp response: the novel was “not a cosmology. It’s an invention.” Their response? “Ah, you’re just testing us.”


Amy Conchie is assistant to the publisher at Melville House.