Doris Lessing at lit.cologne 2006
22 October 1919 |
|Literary movement||Modernism, Science fiction|
|Spouse(s)||Frank Charles Wisdom (1939-1943)
Gottfried Anton Nicolai Lessing (1945-1949)
In 2007, Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was described by the Swedish Academy as "that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny". Lessing is the eleventh woman to win the prize in its 106-year history, and also the oldest person ever to win the literature award.
Lessing was born to Captain Alfred Tayler and Emily Maude Tayler (née McVeagh), who were both English and of British nationality. Her father, who had lost a leg during his service in World War I, met his future wife, a nurse, at the Royal Free Hospital where he was recovering from his amputation.
Alfred Tayler moved his family to Kermanshah, in Persia (now Iran), in order to take up a job as a clerk for the Imperial Bank of Persia and it was here that Doris was born in 1919. The family then moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1925 to farm maize, when Lessing's father purchased around one thousand acres of bush. Lessing's mother attempted to lead an Edwardian life style amongst the rough environment, which would have been easy had the family been wealthy; it was not. The farm was not successful and failed to deliver the wealth Lessing's parents had expected.
Lessing was educated at the Dominican Convent High School, a Roman Catholic convent all-girls school in Salisbury (now Harare). Lessing left school aged 13, and thereafter was self-educated. She left home at 15 and worked as a nursemaid, and it was around this time that Lessing started reading material on politics and sociology that her employer gave her to read. She began writing around this time. In 1937, Lessing moved to Salisbury to work as a telephone operator, and she soon married her first husband, Frank Wisdom, with whom she had two children, before the marriage ended in 1943.
Following her divorce, Lessing was drawn to the Left Book Club, a communist book club, and it was here that she met her second husband, Gottfried Lessing. They were married shortly after she joined the group and had a child together, before the marriage also ended in divorce in 1949. Gottfried Lessing later became the East German ambassador to Uganda, and was murdered in the 1979 rebellion against Idi Amin Dada.
Because of her campaigning against nuclear arms and South African apartheid, Lessing was banned from that country and from Rhodesia for many years. Lessing moved to London with her youngest son in 1949 and it was at this time her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, was published. Her breakthrough work, written in 1962, was The Golden Notebook.
In 1984, she attempted to publish two novels under a pseudonym, Jane Somers, to demonstrate the difficulty new authors faced in trying to break into print. The novels were declined by Lessing's UK publisher, but accepted by another English publisher, Michael Joseph, and in the US by Alfred A. Knopf.
She declined a damehood, but accepted a Companion of Honour at the end of 1999 for "conspicuous national service". She has also been made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature.
On 11 October 2007, Lessing was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. At 87, she is the oldest person to have received the literature prize and the third oldest Nobel Laureate in any category. She also stands as only the eleventh woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature by the Swedish Academy in its 106-year history. She told reporters outside her home "I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I'm delighted to win them all. It's a royal flush." The prize £765,000 ($1.6 million).
Lessing's fiction is commonly divided into three distinct phases: the Communist theme (1944-1956), when she was writing radically on social issues (and returned to in The Good Terrorist (1985)), the psychological theme (1956-1969), and after that the Sufi theme, which was explored in a science fiction setting in the Canopus series (see below).
Lessing's switch to science fiction was not popular with many critics. For example, in the New York Times in 1982 John Leonard wrote in reference to The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 that "One of the many sins for which the 20th century will be held accountable is that it has discouraged Mrs. Lessing.... She now propagandizes on behalf of our insignificance in the cosmic razzmatazz." To which Lessing replied: "What they didn't realize was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time. I also admire the classic sort of science fiction, like Blood Music, by Greg Bear. He's a great writer.". Unlike some authors primarily known for their mainstream work, she has never hesitated to admit that she writes science fiction. She was Writer Guest of Honour at the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention ( Worldcon), and made a well-received speech in which she described her science-fictional Memoirs of a Survivor as "an attempt at an autobiography."
Her novel The Golden Notebook is considered a feminist classic by some scholars, but notably not by the author herself, who later wrote that its theme of mental breakdowns as a means of healing and freeing one's self from illusions had been overlooked by critics. She also regretted that critics failed to appreciate the exceptional structure of the novel. As she explains in Walking in the Shade Lessing modelled Molly, to an extent, on her good friend Joan Rodker, the daughter of the author and publisher John Rodker.
Lessing does not like the idea of being pigeon-holed as a feminist author. When asked why, she replies:
What the feminists want of me is something they haven't examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, 'Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.' Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I've come with great regret to this conclusion.
— Doris Lessing, The New York Times, 25 July, 1982
When asked about which of her books she considers most important, Lessing chose the Canopus in Argos science fiction series. These books show, from many different perspectives, an advanced society's efforts at forced evolution (also see Progressor and Uplift). The Canopus series is based partly on Sufi concepts, to which Lessing was introduced by Idries Shah. Earlier works of "inner space" fiction like Briefing for a Descent into Hell and Memoirs of a Survivor also connect to this theme.
Lessing's largest literary archive is held by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, at the University of Texas at Austin. The 45 archival boxes of Lessing's materials at the Ransom Centre represent nearly all of her extant manuscripts and typescripts through 1999. Original material for Lessing's early books is assumed not to exist because Lessing kept none of her early manuscripts. Other institutions, such as McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa hold smaller collections.
- Somerset Maugham Award (1954)
- Prix Médicis étranger (1976)
- Österreichischer Staatspreis für Europäische Literatur (1981)
- Shakespeare-Preis der Alfred Toepfer Stiftung F. V. S., Hamburg (1982)
- W. H. Smith Literary Award (1986)
- Palermo Prize (1987)
- Premio Internazionale Mondello (1987)
- Premio Grinzane Cavour (1989)
- James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography(1995)
- Los Angeles Times Book Prize (1995)
- Premi Internacional Catalunya (1999)
- Order of the Companions of Honour (1999)
- Companion of Literature of the Royal Society of Literature (2000)
- David Cohen British Literary Prize (2001)
- Premio Príncipe de Asturias (2001)
- S.T. Dupont Golden PEN Award (2002)
- Nobel Prize in Literature (2007)