Born October 22, 1919, in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran); daughter of Alfred Cook Taylor (a farmer) and Emily Maude McVeagh; married Frank Charles Wisdom, 1939 (marriage dissolved, 1943); married Gottfried Anton Nicholas Lessing, 1945 (marriage dissolved, 1949); children: (first marriage) John (deceased), Jean; (second marriage) Peter. Politics: "Left-wing."
Agent— c/o Jonathan Clowes Ltd., 10 Iron Bridge House, Bridge Approach, London NW1 8BD, England.
Writer. Worked as a nursemaid, a lawyer's secretary, a Hansard typist, and a Parliamentary Commissioner's typist while living in Southern Rhodesia, 1924-49.
National Institute of Arts and Letters, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Modern Language Association (honorary fellow), Institute of Cultural Research.
Somerset Maugham Award, Society of Authors, 1954, for Five: Short Novels; shortlisted for the Booker McConnell Prize, 1971, for Briefing for a Descent into Hell, 1981, for The Sirian Experiments: The Report of Ambien II, of the Five, and 1986, for The Good Terrorist; Prix Medici Award for work translated into French, 1976, for The Golden Notebook; Austrian State Prize for European Literature, 1981; German Federal Republic Shakespeare Prize, 1982; Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award (Ditmars) nomination, 1982, for The Sirian Experiments; W. H. Smith Literary Award, 1986, Palermo Prize, 1987, and Premio Internazionale Mondello, 1987, all for The Good Terrorist; Grinzane Cavour award (Italy), 1989, for The Fifth Child; honorary degree, Princeton University, 1989, and Harvard University, 1995; distinguished fellow, University of East Anglia, 1991; James Tait Black Memorial Book Prize, University of Edinburgh, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize, both 1995, both for Under My Skin; David Cohen British Literary Prize, 2001, for her life's work; Asturias Prize for literature, Prince of Asturias Foundation, 2001.
This Was the Old Chief's Country (stories), M. Joseph (London, England), 1952.
Five: Short Novels, M. Joseph (London, England), 1955.
Retreat to Innocence, M. Joseph (London, England), 1956.
Habit of Loving (stories), Crowell (New York, NY), 1958.
The Golden Notebook, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1962, with an introduction by the author, Harper Perennial (New York, NY), 1994.
A Man and Two Women (stories), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1963.
African Stories, M. Joseph (London, England), 1964, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1965.
Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Knopf (New York, NY), 1971.
The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1972, published as The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories, J. Cape (London, England), 1972.
The Summer before the Dark, Knopf (New York, NY), 1973.
The Memoirs of a Survivor, Random House (New York, NY), 1975.
Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1978, published in two volumes as Collected Stories I: To Room Nineteen and Collected Stories II: The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories, J. Cape (London, England), 1978.
(Under pseudonym Jane Somers) The Diary of a Good Neighbor (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.
(Under pseudonym Jane Somers) If the Old Could … (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.
The Diaries of Jane Somers (contains The Diary of a
Good Neighbor and If the Old Could …), Random House (New York, NY), 1984.
The Good Terrorist, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.
The Fifth Child, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
The Doris Lessing Reader, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
The Real Thing: Stories and Sketches, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992, published as London Observed: Stories and Sketches, HarperCollins (London, England), 1992.
Love, Again, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1996.
Mara and Dann: An Adventure, HarperFlamingo (New York, NY), 1999.
Ben, in the World (sequel to The Fifth Child), Harper-Collins (New York, NY), 2000.
The Sweetest Dream, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
"CHILDREN OF VIOLENCE" SERIES
Martha Quest, M. Joseph (London, England), 1952. A Proper Marriage, M. Joseph (London, England), 1954.
A Ripple from the Storm, M. Joseph (London, England), 1958.
Landlocked, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1966.
The Four-Gated City, Knopf (New York, NY), 1969.
"CANOPUS IN ARGOS: ARCHIVES" SERIES
Re: Colonized Planet Five, Shikasta, Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.
The Marriage between Zones Three, Four, and Five, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.
The Sirian Experiments: The Report of Ambien II, of the Five, Knopf (New York, NY), 1981.
The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight, Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.
Documents relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire, Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.
Canopus in Argos: Archives (contains Re: Colonized Planet Five, Shikasta; The Marriage between Zones Three, Four, and Five; The Sirian Experiments: The Report of Ambien II, of the Five; The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight; and Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire), Vintage (New York, NY), 1992.
Going Home, drawings by Paul Hogarth, M. Joseph (London, England), 1957, with a new afterword, Harper Perennial (New York, NY), 1996.
In Pursuit of the English: A Documentary, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1961, reprinted, 1996.
Particularly Cats, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1967, revised edition published as Particularly Cats—And Rufus, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, Interviews, Random House (New York, NY), 1975.
Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, Harper (New York, NY), 1987.
The Wind Blows away Our Words, Random House (New York, NY), 1987.
African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.
Under My Skin (autobiography), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1994.
Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.
Mr. Dollinger, produced in Oxford, England, 1958.
Each in His Own Wilderness, produced in London, England, 1958.
The Truth about Billy Newton, produced in Salisbury, England, 1961.
Play with a Tiger (produced in London, England, 1962; produced in New York, NY, 1964), M. Joseph (London, England), 1962.
Also author of a libretto based on The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight, for an opera by Philip Glass.
Fourteen Poems, Scorpion Press (London, England), 1959.
The Old Age of El Magnifico, Flamingo (London, England), 2000.
The Memoirs of a Survivor was adapted into a film and released in 1983; The Grass Is Singing was adapted into a film by Michael Raeburn and released as Killing Heat in 1984.
Doris Lessing, whose long career as a novelist, short story writer, and essayist began in the mid-twentieth century, is considered among the most important writers of the modern postwar era. Since her birth in 1919 in Britain's sphere of influence in Persia (now Iran), Lessing has traveled widely, in geographical, social, political, psychological, and literary terms. These travels, as expressed in her writing, offer readers insights into life at distant outposts of the British Empire and at its core. Through her books—including novels and short-story collections—one can encounter people buffeted by personal, historical, and political forces, and can explore the major issues of the age: racism, communism, feminism, terrorism, and the destruction of the environment. "Lessing is as experimental in her writing as she is prolific," wrote an essayist for the Reference Guide to English Literature. "In addition to plays and short stories, she has written novels ranging in style from realism to science fiction, constantly searching for the forms which will most satisfactorily convey her vision. But common to all her novels is her use of the marginal perspective of the outsider—a position corresponding to her own relationship, both as an ex-colonial and as a woman, to contemporary Western culture."
Lessing's wide-ranging literary appetite is one of the defining characteristics of her work; another is her style. "The Lessing sentence is blunt," explained Philip Hensher in the Spectator, "quickly veering from concrete facts to abstract nouns, tempted briefly by the possibilities of rhapsody, but always turning back to the urgency of the urban demotic.…Its cadences are punchy.…she loves the grand, dramatic force of words like wisdom, and the vivid simplicity of the names of colours." "Critics have found it extremely hard to categorize Lessing," observed Fiona R. Barnes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "for she has at various stages of her life espoused different causes and been labeled over again."
Years in Africa
In 1924 Lessing's father took the family to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), hoping to make a fortune growing corn and tobacco and panning for gold. The family found little fortune on its new farm, located in a remote corner of the Rhodesian bush not far from the border with Mozambique. However, in her years growing up in the African wild, her stays in convent and government schools, and her brief career as a secretary and homemaker, Lessing found a wealth of literary inspiration. As Mark Mathabane noted in the Washington Post Book World, "The formidable problems of racial, social and economic injustice besieging the region of her formative years, its wondrous beauty and unfulfilled promise, left a permanent imprint on her. They molded her artistic temperament, politics and loyalties and made of her a highly original and activist writer." Michael Thorpe, writing in British Writers, recounted: "Having written two bad novels on the farm and destroyed them, she returned to Salisbury in the guise of a telephone operator. Her life sharply changed direction, turning outward into the flux of the brashly provincial settlers' capital. She immersed herself, she says, in 'the kind of compulsive good time described in Martha Quest.' This led to marriage with a civil servant and the birth of a son and a daughter. When this marriage broke up, she had to leave the children. She remarried, to a German exile named Lessing,.…When this marriage also failed, she brought out of it with her to England a second son and retained her husband's name." In 1949 Lessing left Africa behind for London. Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, was published the following year.
Like many of the novels and short stories that would follow its debut, The Grass Is Singing deals with settings, characters, and issues very close to its author's experience of Rhodesian society and its government's apartheid policies. The central character of the novel is Mary Turner, the wife of a farmer in the African bush, whose affair with an African servant ends in her murder. "Mary Turner is a strange, sad woman, suffering under the burden of obligations imposed upon her as a white woman by the sad, strange conventions of a colonial settler society," explained K. Anthony Appiah in the New Republic, the critic going on to add that "the novel is intensely humane in its attentiveness to the minutest details of the mental life of this central character." In the opinion of New York Review of Books contributor J. M. Coetzee, this book represents "an astonishingly accomplished debut, though perhaps too wedded to romantic stereotypes of the African for present-day tastes." At the time of Lessing's debut in 1950, however, Appiah observed, "reviewers pronounced her the finest new novelist" since World War II.
"The Grass Is Singing," as an essayist for Feminist Writers explained, "was hailed as a breakthrough look at the horrors of South African apartheid. However, upon a second reading, the novel may seem focused on the desperate situation of a lively woman who is beat down by the grayness of her married life and the bleakness of anything the future might hold. Yet another reading of the novel brings out the harshness of the African landscape, the overwhelming power of nature, and the impending defeat of any human who tries to challenge those obstacles. Therein lies the strength of Lessing's talent, the layering of story within story."
The Golden Notebook
Lessing's major and most controversial novel is The Golden Notebook, first published in 1962, wherein she explores, as a New Statesman reviewer noted, what it is like to be "free and responsible, a woman in relation to men and other women, and to struggle to come to terms with one's self about these things and about writing and politics." Lessing once explained that the work is "a novel about certain political and sexual attitudes that have force now; it is an attempt to explain them, to objectivize them, to set them in relation with each other. So in a way it is a social novel, written by someone whose training—or at least whose habit of mind—is to see these things socially, not personally." In its structure, the novel is really two novels, divided in four sections and "The Golden Notebook." Lessing split it into four parts in order to "express a split person. I felt that if the artist's sensibility is to be equated with the sensibility of the educated person, then it is logical to use different styles to express different kinds of people." She felt that the "personality is very much what is remembered; [the form] enabled me to say to the reader: Look, these apparently so different people have got so-and-so in common, or these things have got this in common. If I had used a conventional style, the old-fashioned novel, … I would not have been able to do this kind of playing with time, memory and the balancing of people.… I like The Golden Notebook even though I believe it to be a failure, because it at least hints at complexity."
After her initial flourishing as a writer, during which time she explored the Africa of her youth from her new home in London, Lessing turned away from the land of her past and toward new settings: inner space and outer space. Briefing for a Descent into Hell is a novel of ideas based on her interest in the views of British psychiatrist R. D. Laing. In subsequent novels, Lessing has continued to produce work critiquing modern society. In contrast to the realism that marked her earlier novels, Lessing's work of the late twentieth century—particularly her science-fiction series "Canopus in Argos: Archives"—would take startling new forms. In the five "Canopus" books she explores the destruction of life brought about by catastrophe and tyranny. Paul Schlueter in the Dictionary of Literary Biography noted that in this series Lessing's "high seriousness in describing earth's own decline and ultimate demise is as profoundly apocalyptic as ever."
Following her foray into science fiction, Lessing again surprised readers and critics by publishing two novels under a pseudonym, Jane Somers. The Diary of a Good Neighbor and If the Old Could … contain typical Lessing themes: relations between women, the question of identity, and psychological conflict. Though Lessing was able to get the "Somers" books published in both England and the United States, they were generally ignored by critics and did not sell well. Lessing finally admitted that the works were her creation, saying that she had used the pseudonym to prove a point about the difficulties facing young writers. Without adequate marketing and publicity, noted Lessing, books by unknown writers are generally doomed to oblivion.
Later fiction by Lessing includes The Good Terrorist, a satirical novel about romantic politics; The Fifth Child, a 1998 novel about a violent, antisocial child who wreaks havoc on his family and society; and Love Again, a reflection on the agonies and insufficiency of romantic love. Commenting on Love Again in the New Yorker, Brooks Appelbaum maintained that the book is "really about the sawdust sensation of knowing that one's darkest despair and brightest ecstasy have been felt and expressed before, and better; and that ultimately, their expression doesn't help." The book's protagonist, an older woman, dissects "her love and grief with the ruthless precision of a forensic pathologist" in passages that "radiate the analytical purity that has always been Lessing's greatest strength."
A sequel to The Fifth Child published over ten years later, Ben, in the World continues the story of middle-class Britisher Ben Lovatt, who has been treated as an outsider since birth due to his primitive, savage physique. Now eighteen, the muscular but apelike Ben looks much older than his age; with little education and fearful of society, he nonetheless flees his uncaring family for Brazil, where he attempts to come to terms with his savage spirit in a harsh world. Noting that the novel's plot borders on "bathetic melodrama," a Publishers Weekly contributor nonetheless commended Lessing for her efforts to show "how intellectuals acting in the name of art or science cruelly exploit simple people who can't defend themselves." Viewing the novel more positively in her Christian Century review, Trudy Bush called Lessing's approach a "fresh twist" on a traditional theme, and added that readers of Ben, in the World will never again "see those who are radically different from themselves in quite the same way."
Considered a semi-autobiographical novel, Lessing's The Sweetest Dream takes place during the 1960s and focuses on Julia, a widow living in a house in Hampstead who takes in her daughter-in-law and young grandsons after her son abandons his family in favor of the communist party. Due to the young mother's generosity, Julia's house is soon second home to a host of interesting characters, some of whom take advantage of the situation. In another part of the novel, a fictional African nation called Zimlia suffers through decolonization, and another political fiction is discredited as the new leaders show themselves to be as ruthless as their colonial predecessors were. In its examination of political systems gone awry and what Booklist contributor Donna Seaman dubbed the "sweet utopian dream of communism that went so nightmarishly wrong," Lessing's novel maintains what New Criterion contributor Paul Hollander called "a compelling focus on the timeless tension between idealistic social-political aspiration and the dark side of human failure.…As Lessing shows, 'the sweetest dream' … will likely continue to haunt and elude us." Calling Lessing "one of the great imaginative fantasists of our time," Spectator reviewer Hensher praised The Sweetest Dream as "loose, absorbing, urgent" in its focus on "the future of society and personal responsibility." Seaman praised the work as "a realistic tour de force," adding that "the force of Lessing's vast knowledge and wisdom and the vigor and vision of her imagination and conviction are felt on every page."
Lessing has also produced nonfiction works, including The Wind Blows away Our Words, about war in Afghanistan during the 1980s. A nonfiction work and two volumes of autobiography marked her eventual return to her African homeland and to the preoccupations of her youth. After leaving Southern Rhodesia in 1949, Lessing had returned only once, in 1956, an experience she recounts in Going Home. After this first homecoming, the white minority government blocked any future returns because of Lessing's criticism of apartheid. It was not until the 1980s, after years of civil war and thousands of deaths brought the black majority to power in the newly christened Zimbabwe, that Lessing could return. In African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe she chronicles her trips to southern Africa in 1982, 1988, 1989, and 1992. On one level, this book offers the keen observations of a new nation's growing pains through the eyes of someone not an insider but not an outsider. She sees first a country trying to come to terms with the outcome of a long and bloody civil war based on race. In subsequent trips, she finds exuberance, corruption, and finally decline. "One is oneself fixed in the beam of Lessing's penetrating gaze from the first moments of the book," wrote Appiah.
In African Laughter, according to Mathabane, "Lessing gives us one of the most penetrating and evenhanded critiques of Zimbabwe as a new nation." Her "portrait is without stereotype or sentimentality," the critic added, "and free of the overbearing shadow of South Africa and its larger-than-life problems of apartheid." For Appiah, however, Lessing's insights into the changes taking place in Zimbabwe are not complete because, as a white woman, she is unable to get inside the hearts and minds of blacks. "Lessing shows us only the exterior of the black Zimbabweans," he pointed out, "but still we are in her debt for what that view teaches us about what is happening in Zimbabwe." In Appiah's final analysis, "What we learn from this book, then, is not so much the political history of Zimbabwe in its first dozen years, but the psychic history of Southern Rhodesia, the inner history of the white settlers and what has become of them: the best of this book is the white man's story."
Under My Skin, the first volume of Lessing's autobiography, follows the writer from her birth in 1919 to 1949, the year she left Southern Rhodesia for London and her life as a single mother and aspiring writer. She recounts her very early years in Persia, the railway journey across a chaotic Soviet Russia, the promising voyage to Africa, and the years in the bush and in convent school. She also describes the lives of the Taylor family, their fellow whites, and the African majority around them. Under My Skin "is not so much a recollection of her early life in Southern Rhodesia as a dissection of it," commented Martha Duffy in Time; "The chapters on childhood are marvelously, sometimes frighteningly, detailed." Roberta Rubenstein commented in Chicago's Tribune Books that "Under My Skin makes for compelling reading because of Lessing's vivid reconstructions of decisive experiences and significant people of her childhood. Throughout, she juxtaposes descriptions of events that occurred in her youth—before she was capable of fathoming them—with her current unsentimental judgments of them." Although this is autobiography, reviewers noted that it is Lessing, true to her strengths as an observer and writer. Duffy concluded: "Set down in blunt, fluent prose, it is the same mix of the practical and the speculative that marks all her writing. And, alas, the same lack of humor. But if that is a flaw, it also ensures the author's total engagement with any subject she tackles. That is what one reads Doris Lessing for: unsparing clarity and frankness."
Walking in the Shade, the second Lessing autobiography, covers life in London from her arrival in 1949 to the publication in 1962 of The Golden Notebook, which secured her reputation as a major postwar English writer. Much of the book deals with Lessing's love/hate relationship with the Communist Party, which she joined in 1952—"the most neurotic act of my life," she once wrote—and stuck with it for nearly twenty years despite deep misgivings. "Her … description of the Cold War years, the potent mixture of arrogance, emotionalism and naivety that kept her and others tied to the Party line, long after they knew it was nonsense, will not be bettered," wrote Anne Chisholm in the Times Literary Supplement. The book also recounts Lessing's disastrous love affairs, her struggles as a single mother with little money in grim, tattered postwar London, her writing habits, her relatively rapid entry into the city's intellectual circles, and her perceptions of the famous—and eccentric—who moved in those circles. Chisholm found the book to be "not Lessing's best-written or best-constructed book; it is repetitive, and the more gossipy sections have a perfunctory air, as if added under pressure from her publishers. But even its flaws testify to her seriousness of purpose." Walking in the Shade is "stingingly self-mocking," according to Claudia Roth Pier-pont in the New Yorker; it "is about the admission of colossal, sickening error and defeat." But "it is surely Lessing's ability to hold fast to her goal even as she records every stumble and collapse along the way which has made her work of near-inspirational value to so many."
If you enjoy the works of Doris Lessing
you might want to check out the following books:
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, 1986.
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven, 1971.
Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, 2003.
According to Mathabane, "whatever her subject, Lessing is a surefooted and convincing storyteller. Her work possesses a universality, range and depth matched by that of few other writers in our time." As Schlueter remarked of her career, Lessing's "work has changed radically in format and genre over the years, … and she has been more and more willing to take chances fictionally by tackling unusual or taboo subjects.…Andwhileitis commonplace to note that Lessing is not a stylist, that she is repetitive, and that her fiction too easily reflects her own enthusiasms at particular moments, … the fact remains that she is among the most powerful and compelling novelists of our century." "Lessing is considered one of the finest novelists of the 20th century," according to the essayist in Feminist Writers. "There is no lack of study of her work to support that conclusion—the acclaim of both the academic and psychological communities is complimentary—but proof of her accomplishments is seen in the many dedicated readers that Lessing continues to attract."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Arora, Neena, Nayantara Sahgal and Doris Lessing: A Feminist Study in Comparison, Prestige Books/Indian Society for Commonwealth Studies (New Delhi, India), 1991.
Bigsby, C. W. E., The Radical Imagination and the Liberal Tradition, Junction Books, 1981.
Brueck, Eric T., Doris Lessing: A Bibliography of Her First Editions, Metropolis (London, England), 1984.
Burkom, Selma, and Margaret Williams, Doris Lessing: A Checklist of Primary and Secondary Sources, Whitston (Troy, NY), 1973.
Cederstrom, Lorelei, Fine-tuning the Feminine Psyche: Jungian Patterns in the Novels of Doris Lessing, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1990.
Christ, Carol P., Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1980.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 6, 1975, Volume 10, 1979, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 22, 1982, Volume 40, 1986.
Dandson, Cathy N., and E. M. Brown, editors, The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature, Ungar (New York, NY), 1980.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 15: British Novelists, 1930-1959, 1983, Volume 139: British Short Fiction Writers, 1945-1980, 1994.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1985, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Fahim, Shadia S., Doris Lessing: Sufi Equilibrium and the Form of the Novel, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1994.
Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Galin, Muge, Between East and West: Sufism in the Novels of Doris Lessing, State University of New York Press (Albany, NY), 1997.
Holmquist, Ingrid, From Society to Nature: A Study of Doris Lessing's "Children of Violence," Gothenburg Studies in English, 1980.
Ingersoll, Earl G., editor, Doris Lessing: Conversations, Ontario Review Press (Princeton, NJ), 1994.
Ingersoll, Earl G., editor, Putting the Questions Differently: Interviews with Doris Lessing, 1964-1994, Flamingo (London, England), 1996.
Knapp, Mona, Doris Lessing, Ungar (New York, NY), 1984.
Laurenson, Diana, editor, The Sociology of Literature: Applied Studies, University of Keele Press (Newcastle on Tyne, England), 1978.
Myles, Anita, Doris Lessing: A Novelist with Organic Sensibility, Associated Publishing House (New Delhi, India), 1991.
Pickering, Jean, Understanding Doris Lessing, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1990.
Pratt, Annis, and L. S. Dembo, editors, Doris Lessing: Critical Studies, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 1974.
Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Rigney, Barbara H., Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist Novel: Studies in Brontë, Woolf, Lessing, and Atwood, University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.
Robinson, Sally, Engendering the Subject: Gender and Self-Representation in Contemporary Women's Fiction, State University of New York Press (Albany, NY), 1991.
Rose, Ellen Cronan, The Tree outside the Window: Doris Lessing's Children of Violence, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1976.
Rowe, Margaret Moan, Doris Lessing, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1994.
Sage, Lorna, Doris Lessing, Methuen (New York, NY), 1983.
St. Andrews, Bonnie, Forbidden Fruit: On the Relationship between Women and Knowledge in Doris Lessing, Selma Langerleof, Kate Chopin, Margaret Atwood, Whitston (Troy, NY), 1986.
Saxton, Ruth, and Jean Tobin, editors, Woolf and Lessing: Breaking the Mold, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1994.
Shapiro, Charles, editor, Contemporary British Novelists, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1964.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 1, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Short Story Criticism, Volume 6, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1990.
Thorpe, Michael, British Writers, Scribner (New York, NY), 1987.
Whittaker, Ruth, Doris Lessing, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1988.
America, December 7, 1996, p. 25.
Antioch Review, fall, 1996, p. 493.
Ariel, July, 1995, p. 176.
Belles Lettres, summer, 1993, p. 30.
Book, May, 2001, p. 86; January-February, 2002, Penelope Mesic, review of The Sweetest Dream, p. 63.
Booklist, November 15, 2001, Brad Hooper, review of The Grass Is Singing, p. 555; December 1, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of The Sweetest Dream, p. 605; November 15, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels, p. 548.
Boston Globe, July 29, 1992, p. 62; October 16, 1994, p. B18; November 13, 1994, p. B1.
Choice, April, 1995, p. 1298; October, 1995, p. 292; March, 1997, p. 1167.
Christian Century, December 13, 2000, Trudy Bush, review of Ben, in the World, p. 1313.
Christian Science Monitor, December 9, 1992, p. 13; November 17, 1994, p. 14.
Critique, spring, 2002, p. 228.
Economist, December 22, 2001, review of The Sweetest Dream, p. 117.
Frontiers, June, 2001, Roberta Rubenstein, "Feminism, Eros, and the Coming of Age," pp. 1-20.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 24, 1984; April 6, 1985; December 21, 1985; August 6, 1988.
Hudson Review, spring, 2001, Alan Davis, review of Ben, in the World, p. 141.
Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2003, review of The Grandmothers, p. 1246.
Library Journal, February 1, 2002, Beth Anderson, review of The Sweetest Dream, p. 131; November 15, 2003, Amy Ford, review of The Grandmothers, p. 100.
London Review of Books, April 22, 1993, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times, March 1, 1983; July 6, 1983; May 10, 1984; January 14, 1988; June 25, 1992, p. E12; October 20, 1994, p. E8; December 8, 1994, p. E1.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 1, 1981; March 21, 1982; February 10, 1985; October 13, 1985; October 20, 1985; March 27, 1988; April 6, 1988; November 1, 1992, p. 2; September 5, 1993, p. 6.
Maclean's, January 9, 1995, p. 66; April 15, 1996, p. 64.
Modern Fiction Studies, summer, 1975; spring, 1980; spring, 1996, p. 194.
Modern Language Quarterly, March, 1974.
Nation, January 11, 1965; January 17, 1966; June 13, 1966; March 6, 1967; November 7, 1994, p. 528; May 6, 1996, p. 62; October 13, 1997, p. 31.
New Criterion, March, 2003, Paul Hollander, review of The Sweetest Dream, pp. 71-76.
New Republic, June 28, 1993, p. 30.
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Newsweek, October 14, 1985.
New York, October 26, 1992, p. 96.
New Yorker, June 10, 1996, p. 88; November 17, 1997, p. 108; February 18, 2002, Louis Menand, review of The Sweetest Dream, p. 193.
New York Review of Books, December 22, 1994, p. 51; April 18, 1996, pp. 13-15.
New York Times, October 21, 1972; October 23, 1979; March 27, 1980; January 19, 1981; January 29, 1982; March 14, 1983; April 22, 1984; October 5, 1984; October 23, 1984; July 14, 1985; September 17, 1985; March 30, 1988; June 14, 1988; June 16, 1992, p. C16; November 2, 1994, p. C1.
New York Times Book Review, March 14, 1971; May 13, 1973; June 4, 1978; November 4, 1979; March 30, 1980; January 11, 1981; February 2, 1982; April 3, 1983; September 22, 1985; January 24, 1988; April 3, 1988; April 12, 1992, p. 13; October 18, 1992, p. 13; November 6, 1994, p. 1; April 21, 1996, p. 13; September 14, 1997, p. 16.
Partisan Review, spring, 2002, Anthony Chennells, review of The Sweetest Dream, p. 297.
Publishers Weekly, September 19, 1994, p. 47; May 29, 2000, review of Ben, in the World, p. 46; January 21, 2002, review of The Sweetest Dream, p. 63; November 17, 2003, review of The Grandmothers, p. 40.
San Francisco Review of Books, Number 3, 1992, p. 25.
Spectator, October 31, 1992, p. 38; October 22, 1994, p. 48; April 20, 1996, p. 42; October 18, 1997, p. 55; September 1, 2001, Philip Hensher, review of The Sweetest Dream, p. 33; November 15, 2003, Digby Durrant, review of The Grandmothers, p. 51.
Time, October 1, 1984; October 7, 1985; November 21, 1994.
Times (London, England), March 19, 1981; June 2, 1983; August 12, 1985; October 7, 1985.
Times Literary Supplement, November 23, 1979; May 9, 1980; April 17, 1981; April 2, 1982; June 3, 1983; September 13, 1985; May 8, 1987; October 17, 1987; April 22, 1988; December 18, 1992, p. 8; December, 2, 1994, p. 11; April 5, 1996, p. 27; December 5, 1997, p. 6.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 30, 1979; April 27, 1980; January 24, 1982; September 29, 1985; January 31, 1988; March 20, 1988; July 26, 1992, p. 3; January 3, 1993, p. 3; October 23, 1994, p. 1.
USA Today, December 1, 1994, p. D9.
Village Voice, January 4, 1973; October 2, 1978.
Washington Post, September 24, 1984; October 1, 1984; October 24, 1984; June 11, 1992, p. B2; December 29, 1994, p. C1.
Washington Post Book World, October 21, 1979; November 4, 1979; April 6, 1980; January 25, 1981; March 21, 1982; April 24, 1983; September 22, 1985; March 20, 1988; April 19, 1992, p. 15; January, 10, 1993, p. 5; October 16, 1994, p. 14; March 31, 1996, p. 7.
Women's Review of Books, March, 1995, p. 11; October, 1996, p. 11; November, 1997, p. 5.
World Literature Today, spring, 2002, Charles P. Sarvan, review of The Sweetest Dream, pp. 119-120.
World Literature Written in English, November, 1973; April, 1976.*
Lessing, Doris (May)
LESSING, Doris (May)
Pseudonym: Jane Somers. Nationality: British. Born: Doris May Tayler in Kermanshah, Persia, 22 October 1919; moved with her family to England, then to Banket, Southern Rhodesia, 1924. Education: Dominican Convent School, Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, 1926-34. Family: Married 1) Frank Charles Wisdom in 1939 (divorced 1943), one son and one daughter; 2) Gottfried Lessing in 1945 (divorced 1949), one son. Career: Au pair, Salisbury, 1934-35; telephone operator and clerk, Salisbury, 1937-39; typist, 1946-48; journalist, Cape Town Guardian, 1949; moved to London, 1950; secretary, 1950; member of the Editorial Board, New Reasoner (later New Left Review ), 1956. Awards: Maugham award, for fiction, 1954; Médicis prize (France), 1976; Austrian State prize, 1981; Shakespeare prize (Hamburg), 1982; W.H. Smith Literary award, 1986; Palermo prize (Italy), 1987; Mondello prize (Italy), 1987; Cavour award (Italy), 1989; Premi Internacional Catalunya, 1999. Honorary doctorate: Princeton University, New Jersey, 1989; Durham, 1990; Warwick, 1994; Bard College, New York, 1994; Harvard, 1995. Named Woman of the Year, Norway, 1995. Associate member, American Academy, 1974; Honorary Fellow, Modern Language Association (U.S.A.), 1974. Agent: Jonathan Clowes Ltd., Iron Bridge House, Bridge Approach, London, NW1 8BD, England.
The Grass Is Singing. London, Joseph, and New York, Crowell, 1950.
Children of Violence:
Martha Quest. London, Joseph, 1952; with A Proper Marriage, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1964.
A Proper Marriage. London, Joseph, 1954; with Martha Quest, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1964.
A Ripple From the Storm. London, Joseph, 1958; with Landlocked, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1966; published under original title, 1995.
Landlocked. London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1965; with A Ripple From the Storm. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1966.
The Four-Grated City. London, MacGibbon and Kee, and New York, Knopf, 1969.
Retreat to Innocence. London, Joesph, 1956; New York, Prometheus, 1959.
The Golden Notebook. London, Joseph, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1962.
Briefing for a Decent into Hell. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1971.
The Summer Before the Dark. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1973.
The Memoirs of a Survivor. London, Octagon Press, 1974; New York, Knopf, 1975.
Canopus in Argos: Archives:
Shikasta. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1979.
The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1980.
The Sirian Experiments. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1980.
The Making of the Representative for Planet 8. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1982.
The Sentimental Agents. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1983.
The Diaries of Jane Somers. New York, Vintage, and London, Joseph, 1984.
The Diary of a Good Neighbour (as Jane Somers). London, Joseph, and New York, Knopf, 1983.
If the Old Could— (as Jane Somers). London, Joseph, and New York, Knopf, 1984.
The Good Terrorist. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1985.
The Fifth Child. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1988.
Love, Again: A Novel. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.
Mara and Dann: An Adventure by Doris Lessing. New York, HarperFlamingo, 1999.
Ben, in the World: The Sequel to the Fifth Child. New York, HarperCollins, 2000.
This Was the Old Chief's Country. London, Joseph, 1951; New York, Crowell, 1952.
Five: Short Novels. London, Joseph, 1953.
No Witchcraft for Sale: Stories and Short Novels. Moscow, Foreign Language Publishing House, 1956.
The Habit of Loving. London, MacGibbon and Kee, and New York, Crowell, 1957.
A Man and Two Women. London, MacGibbon and Kee, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1963.
African Stories. London, Joseph, 1964; New York, Simon and Schuster, 1965.
Winter in July. London, Panther, 1966.
The Black Madonna. London, Panther, 1966. Nine African Stories, edited by Michael Marland. London, Longman, 1968.
The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories. London, Cape, 1972; as The Temptation of Jack Orfkney and Other Stories, New York, Knopf, 1972.
Collected African Stories. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1981.
This Was the Old Chief's Country. London, Joseph, 1973. The Sun Between Their Feet. London, Joseph, 1973.
(Stories), edited by Alan Cattell. London, Harrap, 1976.
Jack Orkney. London, Cape, 2 vols., 1978; as Stories, New York, Knopf, 1 vol., 1978.
London Observed: Stories and Sketches. London, and New York, HarperCollins, 1992.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Case of the Foolish Minister" (as Doris M. Wisdom), in Rafters (Salisbury, Rhodesia), November 1943.
"A Sense of Humour" (as D.M. Wisdom), in Rafters (Salisbury, Rhodesia), December 1943.
"Esperanto and Others" (as D.M. Wisdom), in Rafters (Salisbury, Rhodesia), April 1944.
"Politics and Alister Warren," in Labour Front (Salisbury, Rhodesia), September 1948.
"The Twitching Dog," in N.B. (Salisbury, Rhodesia), January 1949.
"Fruit from the Ashes," in Trek (Johannesburg), October 1949.
"Pretty Puss," in Trek (Johannesburg), March 1950.
"Womb Ward," in New Yorker, 7 December 1987.
"The Real Thing," in Partisan Review (Boston), Fall 1988.
"Debbie and Julie," in Antaeus (New York), Spring 1989.
"Among the Roses," in Ladies' Home Journal (New York), April 1989.
Before the Deluge (produced London, 1953).
Mr. Dollinger (produced Oxford, 1958).
Each His Own Wilderness (produced London, 1958). Published in New English Dramatists, London, Penguin, 1959.
The Truth about Billy Newton (produced Salisbury, Wiltshire, 1960).
Play with a Tiger (produced Brighton and London, 1962; New York, 1964). London, Joseph, 1962; in Plays by and about Women, edited by Victoria Sullivan and James V. Hatch, New York, Random House, 1973.
The Storm, adaptation of a play by Alexander Ostrovsky (produced London, 1966).
The Singing Door (for children), in Second Playbill 2, edited by Alan Durband. London, Hutchinson, 1973.
The Making of the Representative for Plant 8 (opera libretto), music by Philipo Glass, adaptation of the novel by Lessing (produced London, 1988).
The Grass Is Singing, from her own novel, 1962; Care and Protection and Do Not Disturb (both in Blackmail series), 1966; Between Men, 1967.
Fourteen Poems. Northwood, Middlesex, Scorpion Press, 1959.
Going Home. London, Joseph, 1957; revised edition, London, Panther, and New York, Ballantine, 1968.
In Pursuit of the English: A Documentary. London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1960; New York, Simon and Schuster, 1961.
Particularly Cats. London, Joseph, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1967.
A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, Interview, edited by Paul Schlueter. New York, Knopf, 1974.
Prisons We Choose to Live Inside. Montreal, CBC, 1986; London, Cape, and New York, Harper, 1987.
The Wind Blows Away Our Words, and Other Documents Relating to Afghanistan. London, Pan, and New York, Vintage, 1987.
Particularly Cats and More Cats. London, 1989; as Particularly Cats … and Rufus, illustrated by James McMullen, New York, Knopf, 1991.
The Doris Lessing Reader. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1990.
African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe. London, and New York, HarperCollins, 1992.
Under My Skin. London, and New York, HarperCollins, 1994.
Doris Lessing: Conversations, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll. Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1994.
Putting the Questions Differently: Interviews with Doris Lessing, 1964-1994, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll. London, Flamingo, 1996.
Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962. New York, HarperCollins, 1997.
On Women Turning 70: Honoring the Voices of Wisdom, interviews and photography by Cathleen Rountree. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999.*
Doris Lessing: A Bibliography by Catharina Ipp, Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand Department of Bibliography, 1967; Doris Lessing: A Checklist of Primary and Secondary Sources by Selma R. Burkom and Margaret Williams, Troy, New York, Whiston, 1973; Doris Lessing: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticisim by Dee Seligman, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1981; Doris Lessing: A Descriptive Bibliography of Her First Editions by Eric T. Brueck, London, Metropolis, 1984.
Critical Studies (selection):
Doris Lessing by Dorothy Brewster, New York, Twayne, 1965; The Novels of Doris Lessing by Paul Schlueter, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1973; Doris Lessing, London, Longman, 1973, and Doris Lessing: Critical Studies edited by Annis Pratt and L.S. Dembo, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1974; The Tree Outside the Window: Doris Lessing's Children of Violence by Ellen Cronan Rose, Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1976; The City and the Veld: The Fiction of Doris Lessing by Mary Ann Singleton, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 1977; The Novelistic Vision of Doris Lessing: Breaking the Forms of Consciousness by Roberta Rubenstein, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1979; Doris Lessing: The Problem of Alienation and the Form of the Novel by Rotraut Spiegel, Frankfurt, Germany, Lang, 1980; From Society to Nature: A Study of Doris Lessing's Children of Violence By Ingrid Holmquist, Gothenburg, Studies in English, and Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, Humanities Press, 1980; Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives: Reading and Re-reading Doris Lessing edited by Jenny Taylor, London and Boston, Routledge, 1982; Substance under Pressure: Artistic Coherence and Evolving Form in the Novels of Doris Lessing by Betsy Draine, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1983; Doris Lessing by Lorna Sage, London, Methuen, 1983; Transforming the World: The Art of Doris Lessing's Science Fiction, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1983; and The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing: A Study of Narrative Technique, Greenwood Press, 1985, both by Katherine Fishburn; The Implicit Feminism of Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City by Lisa Maria Hogeland, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1983; Doris Lessing by Mona Knapp, New York, Ungar, 1984; Doris Lessing and Women's Appropriation of Science Fiction by Mariette Clare, Birmingham, University of Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, 1984; Doris Lessing edited by Eve Bertelsen, Johannesburg, McGraw Hill, 1985; Critical Essays on Doris Lessing edited by Claire Sprague and Virginia Tiger, Boston, Hall, 1986; Rereading Doris Lessing: Narrative Patterns of Doubling and Repetition by Claire Sprague, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1987, and In Pursuit of Doris Lessing: Nine Nations Reading edited by Sprague, London, Macmillan, 1990; The Theme of Enclosure in Selected Works of Doris Lessing by Shirley Budhos, Troy, New York, Whitston, 1987; Doris Lessing: The Alchemy of Survival edited by Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose, Athens, Ohio University Press, 1988; Doris Lessing by Ruth Whittaker, London, Macmillan, 1988; Doris Lessing by Jeannette King, London, Arnold, 1989; Understanding Doris Lessing by Jean Pickering, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1990; Doris Lessing: Sufi Equilibrium and the Form of the Novel by Shadia S. Fahim. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1994; Doris Lessing by Margaret Moan Rowe, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1994; Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change by Gayle Greene, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1994; Text/Countertext: Postmodern Paranoia in Samuel Beckett, Doris Lessing, and Philip Roth by Marie A. Danziger, New York, P. Lang, 1996; From the Margins of Empire: Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer by Louise Yelin, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1998; Doris Lessing—In This World But Not of It by Carole Klein, Boston, Little, Brown, 1999; Spiritual Exploration in the Works of Doris Lessing, edited by Phyllis Sternberg Perrakis, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1999.* * *
Doris Lessing's writings extend the boundaries of fiction, experiment with different genres, explore the worlds of Africa, Britain, and Space, and offer a socio-political and cultural commentary upon the postmodern world. She is a descendant of those nineteenth-century women writers who made poverty, class conflict, women's suffrage, and slavery the subjects of their novels. She is a writer of epic scope and startling surprises. Her novels range from social realism to science fiction, with brief forays into speculative mysticism and fables of horror. After completing five books in her science-fiction sequence, Canopus in Argos, in 1983, Lessing startled her public by turning away from the Antarctic cold of two of her planetary realms and returning to novels of postwar London with its welfare state, terrorists, and aging population. Two of these books, The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could—, were originally published under the pseudonym of Jane Somers; the third, The Good Terrorist, offers a detailed psychological and political portrait of a group of radicals-turned-terrorists living in London in a dilapidated council flat. Her novella The Fifth Child, tells the chilling tale of a changeling, a goblin-child, and questions whether this child is actually the incarnation of evil, a bad seed, a genetic freak—or is it the mother who is deeply disturbed, projecting her own fears and ambivalence regarding the child onto a child who might, in fact, be nearly normal, or minimally retarded, had he not been so cruelly treated by his family and relatives who thought they had an evil "alien" in their midst?
The Antartic expeditions of Britain's once revered, now tarnished hero, Robert Falcon Scott, profoundly influenced Lessing's The Sirian Experiments and The Making of the Representative for Plant 8, not only by providing her with an understanding of the landscape of paralyzing ice and snow, but by offering her insights into the social processes of Scott's time—the Edwardian era of fierce nationalistic pride and Imperial longings—and of ours. Subsequent books, departing completely from her science-fiction vein, nonetheless continue her preoccupation with human behavior and social processes. Two depict, with graphic psychological realism and rich naturalistic detail, the ordinary day-to-day life of an unmarried, middle-aged career woman living in London and tending society's outcast aged, and belatedly trying to love and give—something she was always too busy to do. Another recounts the life of a group of squatters whose radical spirits transform them into revolutionaries.
Many greeted The Golden Notebook, written in 1962, as Lessing's feminist manifesto, underestimating its critique of the twin gods, Communism and Freud. Later in life, Lessing was a pioneer in writing novels of aging and dying, confronting the pressing social problems these entail and depicting the grim reality we so often ignore or repress. Her fierce reformist spirit pervades her writing; her anger very much with her, she nonetheless tempers her disillusionment with a wisdom learned through living. Her uncanny gift for knowing characters deeply is very much in evidence.
Lessing's books have always articulated her ideas, whether they be about women's orgasms, Armageddon, or utopia. More often than one would expect from so prolific a writer, she is sufficiently imaginative to integrate smoothly her ideas into her narrative. Even more to her credit is that her writing is continually evolving and is unusual in its breadth. Her plunge into science fiction seemed entirely unexpected. In its incipient stages, in Briefing for a Descent into Hell, it was startling and seemed to mark a change as radical as Picasso's when he moved from the Blue Period to Abstract Cubism. With more reflection, one can discover the thread that connects The Golden Notebook to her science-fiction sequence, Canopus in Argos; but it is hard to think of a writer of her stature in the past half-century who has demonstrated such range.
Her career began with The Grass Is Singing, a gem of a book. Set in Rhodesia, it charts with an economy rare in Lessing's works the dissolution of a couple's relationship. After Lessing left Africa in 1949, she devoted ten years to the Children of Violence series which explored exhaustively the theme of the "free Woman" long before it was fashionable. It also displayed Lessing's preoccupation with politics, which many have criticized as tedious. The Golden Notebook is the best of her works from this period despite its obvious flaws. It is as much a book about writing as it is an exploration of women's relationships with each other and men. In many ways it ought to be compared to Gide's The Counterfeiters— the writer's quest to capture the self intended in fiction, not a different, diminished, or enhanced self; the journey through madness that this task requires—the visions of violence it calls up are integral to both books. Both descend from Joyce; both require a sophisticated audience who enjoys unraveling puzzles; both mirror an age when the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle threatens the reliability of all narrators and estranges the artist from world and self.
In the 1970s came the unexpected turn to science fiction. Lessing's interest in extra-sensory perception first emerged in Land-locked. Madness had been seen as a state offering Anna Wulf a respite from the obsessional insistence upon the self that Saul Green spattered out like machine-gun bullets in The Golden Notebook. In Briefing for a Descent into Hell Lessing took her interest in madness a step further. Calling the book a work of "inner space fiction," she built a story around Charles Watkins, a fifty-year-old classics professor who is found wandering on Waterloo Bridge and is confined for a stay in a psychiatric hospital. Two doctors, of conflicting views, struggle to bring back his memory while he follows a visionary journey in which he enjoys a different, higher identity—one conferred upon him by the Crystal—and one that ordained that he enter earth, hell, as part of a Descent Team whose mission is to show the mad, ego-obsessed humans that they are part of a larger harmony. Lessing, following R.D. Laing, explores the possibility that only the mad are sane. But much more intriguing than this idea is Lessing's decision to fashion the language and metaphors of madness from the idiom of science fiction and the visions experienced through ESP. The inner journey of this modern Odysseus is traveled on the space-time warp of science fiction. The regions he visits are vividly depicted. The language which attempts to capture the visions Watkins is experiencing is one where words are understood by their sounds, not their connotative meanings. "I" glides into "aye" and "eye" as Watkins's mind seems to float in limbo, carrying his body through an unfamiliar medium, revealing images from the visionary realm. Lessing sustains this style, interrupted by only the curt notations of the two psychiatrists, for over a hundred pages. The effect is startling. At times one almost drowns in verbiage, but the flow of the vision is interrupted with the banal observations of the doctors or the staccato questioning of the patient. Undoubtedly, Lessing's style will cost her some readers, but those who bear with her will find themselves caught up in this bizarre account and caring very much whether this amnesiac will tenaciously hang on to his visionary self or succumb to the pressures of the doctors and society and return to the ordinary realm where he is merely a slightly eccentric don. Watkins's hold on the link between the two ways of seeing is most precarious. The reader must try to decide whether Felicity, Constancia, and Nancy, creatures in his visions, correspond with his wife, Felicity, his mistress, Constance, and the wife of a friend. We are also left puzzling whether Miles and Watkins are at some level identical, and whether it matters at all since others in the Descent Team seem still to be around. Also, of course, there is the possibility that Watkins is nothing more than temporarily schizophrenic, though the weight of the story seems to negate this alternative. This book introduces all the ideas and the paraphernalia of science fiction that dominate the Canopus in Argos sequence. In its ambiguous treatment of Watkins's identity, it anticipates questions raised in The Fifth Child.
Shikasta and The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five are the first works in the sequence. In the first a compilation of reports, historical documents, letters, and psychiatric diagnoses is used to unfold the story of Johor's three visits to Shikasta (Earth), the last taking place in the final phase just following the Third World War. Johor is an emissary from the galactic Empire of Canopus, sent to Shikasta to report on the colony. It is Johor's task to educate those who survive the Third World War to their true place in a larger planetary System, where cosmological accidents have heavily contributed to the blighted human condition, and where Shammat, the criminal planet of another galactic empire, has temporarily obstructed the lock that will connect Shikasta to Canopus. A Chronicler from zone Three is the narrator of the second book. He tells one of the myths that accounts for man's fallen state and reveals the will of the Powers that the potentates of three hitherto separate zones are to marry and so hasten the evolutionary design that governs the six zones encircling Earth. The myth he tells is of the marriage of Al-Ith, Queen of Zone Three, to Ben Ata, ruler of Zone Four, and, later, the marriage of Ben Ata to Vahshi, ruler of Zone Five. Two births follow. The marriages alter the Zones, estrange their monarchs from the old dispensation, and bring about alterations which enable all the peoples to move between the Zones to explore again, in new metaphors, the human qualities responsible for the catastrophic happenings in this century, and the nature of the kinds of relationships men and women must make and the kinds of societies that must be constructed to move humans to a higher consciousness. The Marriage Between Zones Three, Four, and Five is far more lyrical than Shikasta. The Chronicler uses songs and pictures to capture the mythic dimension of the story he tells. The Sirian Experiments recounts the colonial experiments practiced upon Shikasta, leading its people into their 20th century of Destruction. The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 tells of Johor's journeys to the planet and the ordeal that he and Doeg, the narrator of the novel, along with other representatives, encounter when the planet begins to freeze to death. Doeg comes to understand his part in the Canopean grand design and recognizes finally the mystical transformation which makes him both many and one and enables him to transcend time and space, entering the realm of all possibility under the tutelage of the Canopean Agents. The last book in the series, The Sentimental Agents, is the most disappointing. The history of invasions and conquests of the Volyen Empire enables Lessing to reflect on Klorathy's educational process and his attempts to free the Volyens from the power of words and rhetoric, and teach them the power of thought. The book aspires to place itself in the tradition of Plato, Rousseau, Mill, and Orwell as a novel about an educational project, but it is over-written and the ideas seem tedious. Her old concerns abound—how a revolutionary is made; why man has created a world he cannot manage; that history is a repetition of invasion and conquest with the oppressors of one age the oppressed of the next—but the narrative frame is predictable and the ideas simplistic.
Lessing's next four books return to the kind of fiction she was writing before she tackled science fiction. The Summer Before the Dark, The Memoirs of a Survivor, and the ambitious The Golden Notebook are of a piece with her later writing. The Summer Before the Dark is one of Lessing's most perfectly crafted novels. Compact, tightly constructed, it tells the moving story of a woman's coming to terms with aging. Kate Brown, the forty-five-year-old mother of four children, all grown, and the wife of a neurologist of some standing, is a woman who has lived her married years making accommodations, to her husband's choices and to the needs of her children. In the summer of the story, events unexpectedly leave Kate Brown without family responsibilities and alone in London for the first time since her marriage. She holds a job briefly, depending again on the talents that the sympathetic understanding of mothering taught her. Then she has a brief affair with a young man on the continent. Both fall sick; Kate returns to London where she lies ill, preoccupied with the recurring dream of a seal which she must complete. She loses weight; her brightly tinted red hair becomes brassy, then banded in gray. In the last phase of the story, she shares quarters with a young woman who is struggling with her own coming of age. The two women work upon each other; Kate's dream is completed; both separate to enter another stage of their lives—the young woman choosing marriage, children, even responsibility; Kate, returning to her husband, with her hair gray, as a woman who acts for her own reasons, not merely to please others.
The Memoirs of a Survivor is an even more remarkable book, and equally as mature. It is the memoirs of a nameless woman who has survived "it," a nameless war that has left the cities of England empty shells, with conclaves of people living barricaded in their apartments while the gangs of youths roam the streets and the air is so polluted that hand-driven machines are necessary to purify it. The narrator retells how she lived through this period; how she came by a child, Emily, who was entrusted to her care; how she entered a space behind the white walls of her living-room, and inhabited others rooms, from earlier times, and witnessed the traumatic moments of Emily's youth spent with her real parents. She struggles to tell in words how the two worlds, at first so different, began to impinge upon one another. She contrasts what she calls "personal" moments of experience with others that she labels "impersonal." Both reside in the world behind the wall. The story blends the dreamy, prophetic, timeless moments behind the wall where some heightened consciousness, some visionary powers, exist, with a dispassionate, often chilling, realistic account of "ordinary" life in a ravaged London apartment. Always, when the narrator goes behind the wall, she seeks, with a sense of urgency, the inhabitant of the other house, those other gardens. The protagonist's memoirs end with her account of how they somehow came through the darkest times, and realized that the worst was over, that something new would be built. The final paragraphs describe the moment when the walls opened again, and she saw the face she had sought so long, the inhabitant of that hidden world. And that presence takes the hands of Emily, her boyfriend, and the evil child who had terrorized the London streets and leads them into the garden. It is a mystical moment, transfiguring, mysterious, and a consummate end for this exquisitely crafted book.
In The Diary of a Good Neighbour Jane Somers, like Kate Brown, is a middle-aged, seemingly successful woman, but, unlike Kate, she is childless and recently widowed with only a career to give her definition. To compensate for her lack of relationships and to try to come to terms with cancer and dying—she had faced neither when her husband was terminally ill—she befriends an elderly woman, Maudie, whom she has met in a corner store. The book offers an extraordinarily moving, also frightening, story of this stubborn old woman's final years, living in a council flat, tended to by Meals on Wheels, day nursing, a cadre of Home Helpers, and the volunteer Good Neighbours. Lessing diligently details the life of the ninety-year-old woman, alone in London, too ill to care for herself, too proud to let others help her, and too angry to let friendship or death come easily to her. Soiled in her own clothing, almost too weak and brittle to walk to the unheated lavatory in the hall outside her flat, or to light her meager fire, far beyond any ability to clean her rooms or even dress or bathe. Maudie fiercely clings to her independence, refusing to be put in a home or a hospital which she knows will only mark her end. This is a novel about our time, aging, and society's refusal to differentiate between growing old and dying. It calls forth Lessing's gifts—a precise eye for detail, an absorption in the quotidian, a psychological understanding of people, and the ability to tell a story. The book is full of stories—Maudie's, the elderly Anne's, another of the women Jane comes to help, and, of course Jane's. The second book in the series is less successful. If the Old Could —tells a triter story of Jane's affair with a married man whose unhappy daughter shadows them and whose son baffles her with his unexpected declaration of love. The portions that deal with the elderly, however, are again excellent. Lessing, in both these books, forces the reader to see the elderly. After reading the books, I found myself looking searchingly at the solitary old people sitting on benches, or queuing in the grocery store, or shuffling to a bus, and more important, I looked forward and within.
The Good Terrorist is absorbing, so apt is its portrait of Alice Mellings, a 36-year-old over-aged adolescent, and her "family" of squatters. Alice's instincts are motherly; her zeal to save council flats from being condemned makes her a valuable friend for other, younger, motley members of the Communist Centre Union who join her as a squatter. Her rages are instantaneous and inexplicable to her. Immersed in her day-to-day life, we witness her transformation into a terrorist.
The Fifth Child again demonstrates Lessing's ability to defy labels and forge in new directions. Although its world relates back to a world she revealed in both Briefing for a Descent into Hell and Memoirs of a Survivor, the tale is told in a new and disquieting form. It begins with a too idyllic account of a pair of young Londoners and their old-fashioned dream of a large family, housed in a mammoth Victorian mansion, comfortably away from the strife of the city. After recounting a cycle of yearly house parties and the arrival of four healthy children, it moves to the birth of the fifth child and the disastrous consequences. Folk ingredients, elements of Frankenstein, and images of gnomes and trolls and distant ancestors of the Nebelung haunt the imagination of the mother as her child grows. Mysterious stranglings of animals, and, later, a beating of a classmate, and then thefts and worse crimes occur. All seem the work of the demon child and the idyll of a happy family disintegrates. Throughout the book, we are conscious not only of the desperate plight of the mother of this hapless child, but also of deeper societal unrest. As in many of her other novels, Lessing questions whether there is a higher dimension, or whether mankind has reverted to some darker, primitive age where troll-like creatures dominate the land.
Mara and Dann, Lessing's twenty-first novel, is set during an ice age some 15, 000 years in the future, and takes place on the continent of Ifrik, formerly known as Africa, one of the few habitable regions on Earth. Throughout the book are references to the past, and how the world got to be the way it had become—primarily because of an asteroid that hit the Mediterranean. The territory of Love, Again, is much more familiar, and the contrast between the two books mirrors Lessing's wide-ranging talent. This time the protagonist is a sixty-five-year-old widow, Sarah, who takes part in the production of a play based on the life of Julie Vairon. The latter, a feminist writer who committed suicide in 1912, is as much a character as any in the story, and throughout the novel's panorama of failed relationships (between Sarah and a daughter-like niece, and Sarah and a son-like lover), she forms an abiding presence.
It is too early to assess Lessing's place in literary history. Her imagination is too rich. What can be said is that she is deeply concerned with the human condition, and hungry to explore new dimensions, to redefine relationships. Her writings reflect a nearly obsessive effort to find a way through the historical ravages of the twentieth century to a condition beyond the one of personal unhappiness that plagues so many human relationships. Her novels expose a world out of control, and attempt to teach us how better to manage our world.
—Carol Simpson Stern
B orn Doris May Tayler, October 22, 1919, in Ker-mansha, Persia; daughter of Alfred Cook (a farmer) and Emily Maude (a former nun and nurse; maiden name, McVeagh) Tayler; married Frank Charles Wisdom (a civil servant), 1939 (divorced, 1943); married Gottfried Anton Nicholas Lessing, 1945 (divorced, 1949); children: John (deceased), Jean (from first marriage); Peter (from second marriage).
Addresses: Agent—c/o Jonathan Clowes, Ltd., 10 Iron Bridge House, London NW1 8BD England.
W orked as a nursemaid, a lawyer’s secretary, aHansard typist, switchboard operator, and a Parliamentary Commissioner’s typist while living in Rhodesia, 1934-49; author, 1950—; published first book, The Grass Is Singing, 1950; published “Children of Violence” series, 1952-69; published “Canopus in Argos: Archives” series, 1979-83.
Member: Honorary fellow, National Institute ofArts and Letters, Modern Language Association, foreign honorary member, American Academy of Arts & Letters, 1974—; friend, Institute for Cultural Research.
Awards: Somerset Maugham Award, Society of Authors, for Five: Short Novels, 1954; Prix Médicis étranger Award, France, for The Golden Notebook, 1976; Austrian State Prize for European Literature, 1981; German Federal Republic Shakespeare Prize, 1982; W. H. Smith Literary Award, W. H. Smith retailer, for The Good Terrorist, 1986; Palermo Prize for The Good Terrorist, 1987; Premio Internazionale Mon-dello for The Good Terrorist 1987; Grinzane Cavour Award, Italian Cultural Institute, for The Fifth Child, 1989; honorary doctorate, Princeton University, 1989; honorary doctorate, Durham University, 1990; distinguished fellow, University of East Anglia, 1991; honorary doctorate, Warwick University, 1994; honorary doctorate, Bard College, 1994; James Tait Black Memorial Book Prize, University of Edinburgh, for Under My Skin, 1995; book prize, Los Angeles Times, for Under My Skin, 1995; honorary doctorate, Harvard University, 1995; named Woman of the Year, Norway, 1995; honorary doctorate, Open University, 1999; honorary doctorate, University of London, 1999; David Cohen British Literary Prize, 2001; Asturias Prize for Literature, Prince of As-turias Foundation, 2001; named Companion of Ho-nour, British Royal Society of Literature, 2001; Golden PEN Award for Lifetime Distinguished Services, 2002; Nobel Prize for Literature, 2007.
T he 2007 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Doris Lessing has had a controversial ca- reer during which her fiction, nonfiction, plays, and poems touched on topics such as politics, interpersonal relationships, colonist Africa, the lives of women, mystical ideas, and mental breakdown. The author was hailed by Lesley Hazleton in the New York Times in 1982 as “widely considered one of the most honest, intelligent, and engaged writers of the day.” Unafraid to take chances, Lessing counted intense realism, science fiction, and horror among the fictional genres she explored to greater or lesser success.
Lessing was born on October 22, 1919, in Kerman-sha, Persia. She is the daughter of British citizens Alfred Cook Tayler and his wife, Emily Maude McVeagh, a former nun. Her father was a World War I veteran who had reached the rank of captain and lost his leg in battle. At the time of her birth, he was working for the Imperial Bank of Persia, and had moved his family there after finding post-war Britain uninhabitable. On a whim, after attending an exposition in Britain, Tayler moved his family (including Lessing’s younger brother, Harry) to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia in 1924, where he became a farmer despite a lack of experience in farming.
Lessing’s childhood there was difficult and lonely, enveloped by the wide landscape and her poorly matched parents’ unhappy marriage. The head-strong girl attended a Dominican convent school in Salisbury, Rhodesia, for four years until the age of 14, but was not impressed by the quality of teaching and returned home to pursue her education on her own. Lessing found what interested her, read everything she could on that topic, and then would move on to the next subject. While living in Rhodesia, she worked much of the time, and not only on the family farm. Throughout her childhood and early adulthood, Lessing was also employed as a nursemaid, a lawyer’s secretary, a Hansard typist, and a Parliamentary Commissioner’s typist.
Lessing worked in some of these positions in Salisbury, a city she returned to when she was 18 years old. While living a conventional life, she married her first husband, Frank Wisdom, in 1939 and had two children with him. Wisdom was a kind but uninteresting man, but Lessing felt smothered and realized over the course of her four-year marriage that she was not cut out for marriage and motherhood. The couple divorced in 1943, and she left her son and daughter with her husband. After the failure of her first marriage, Lessing became an active supporter of Communism and soon married again. In 1945, she impulsively wed Gottfried Less-ing, a political refugee from Germany, and had another son, Peter. Again realizing she did not want to be married, Lessing divorced her husband in 1949 and left Africa.
Lessing then moved to London with her son, and already had her first novel in hand. She published her first book in 1950, The Grass Is Singing, and established herself as an important literary figure with the book’s success. The novel reflected her awareness of race and color prejudice in Africa, something that contributed to the end of her first marriage.
In addition to putting out a collection of stories in 1952, This Was the Old Chief’s Country, Lessing began her first series, “Children of Violence,” that same year. The five novel series—which included Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, Landlocked, and The Four-Gated City—was also known as the “Martha Quest novels” and were published irregularly over the 1950s and 1960s. In the books, Lessing explored ideas of colonialism, rac-ism, and psychology as Quest lives out her socialist beliefs and deals with color prejudice in Africa. Lessing also touched on autobiographical elements of her childhood in Rhodesia, including a depiction of her father and his striving to make his Rhodesian farm work through Quest’s father.
As evidenced in the novels and the primary character, psychology and psychiatry became an interest of Lessing’s in the mid1950s. By 1956, Lessing abandoned her support of Communism after being disillusioned by the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Ni-kita Khrushchev’s public denouncement of Stalinism. She soon was intensely interested in radical psychiatry, especially the ideas of R. D. Laing. She spent the next few years immersed in the topic and allowed it to greatly influence her thinking as a person and an author.
During this time period, Lessing also wrote what became her classic novel, The Golden Notebook. Published in 1962, the book depicts women of strength living independent lives and later became a celebrated feminist text, although Lessing later dis-tanced herself from such a political idea. Despite Lessing’s feelings, the novel had strong sales well into the 1990s and was translated into 18 languages.
By the mid1960s, Lessing left radical psychiatry behind as she became disenchanted by Laing and his cohort, the American radical writer Clancy Sigal. She found a new primary intellectual force in Sufism, a mystical Middle Eastern spiritual philosophy she discovered by reading Idries Shah’s 1964 book The Sufis. Sufis believe that one must be involved with the world to help reach universal harmony with the Absolute Being’s spirit. In other words, Sufism takes the concept of cosmic evolu- tion for mankind as an essential idea. Lessing did not consider herself a Sufi, per se, but a student of the philosophy. Sufism began seeping into her books of the late 1960s and early 1970s, reaching an apex in 1979.
In 1979, Lessing began publishing the second series of her career, in a genre thought to be the antithesis of her previous focus on intense realism: science fiction. Dubbed the “Canopus in Argos: Archives” series, she produced five books in four years: Shikasta Re: Colonized Planet Five, The Marriage Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, The Sirian Experiments: The Report of Ambien II, of the Five, The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight, and Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire. The series still touched on classic Lessing themes of social and sociological concerns as well as explored ideas which showed the distinct influence of Sufi philosophy on the author. Yet readers and critics alike were mystified by her desire to work in this genre and many found the books themselves difficult.
After completing “Canopus in Argos: Archives,” Lessing continued to produce novels with regularity in the 1980s. While still doing some science fiction, she returned to her realistic roots as well. One novel of note was 1985’s The Good Terrorist, which focused on a gullible woman, Alice Mellings, in post-World War II London. She belongs to a cluster of self-declared revolutionaries who want to join up with a larger group which will have them, preferably the Irish Republican Army or the Russians. Mellings is the mother figure of the group, providing them refuge in her home while dealing with her own sadness and desire for connection. Critics linked Mellings to Quest, with Anne Collins in Maclean’s commenting, “the poignancy of the book and its compelling emotional power spring from the character of Alice.”
Lessing continued to produce challenging works in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including the novel The Fifth Child and collection of sketches and short stories The Real Thing. The former is a horror story about a monster child born to a self-absorbed, nice, middle class family in London in the 1960s to 1980s. The birth and subsequent psychotic actions of Ben tears the family apart, creating a nightmare world, which can be interpreted as reflecting greater problems in society. When The Fifth Child was published in 1988, it was considered an instant classic and evoked strong reactions among readers and critics about its deeper meaning. In contrast, The Real Thing is more naturalistic, using her adopted home of London as the common bond between many of the pieces as she shares observations about her life and typical Lessing stories about women and their relationships with men.
By the mid1990s, Lessing became more personal in her writing. Leaving aside fiction for a time, she focused on nonfiction. In addition to a work on her visits back to Zimbabwe (as Southern Rhodesia was now known), she wrote her autobiography. Two well-received volumes came out in 1994 and 1997, Under My Skin: Volume 1 of My Autobiography, to 1949 and Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949—1962, respectively. Lessing covered her childhood and young adulthood in Africa in Under My Skin, and focused primarily on her experiences in the male-dominated London literary scene and with Communism in the 1950s in the latter book.
While Lessing concentrated on touring and writing nonfiction for much of the 1990s, she produced at least one novel of significance. Her first novel since The Fifth Child was Love, Again, published in 1996. The novel centers on a 65year-old woman, Sarah, who was widowed in young adulthood with two children to raise and falls in love with two men young enough to be her offspring. Sarah has worked at a fringe theatre for much of her life, and has feelings for a show’s lead and director. While each has feelings for her, they will not sleep with her. Critics praised the book, believing it was somewhat autobiographical in nature.
Lessing continued to produce fiction at a steady rate in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The 2001 novel The Sweetest Dream (2002, U.S. edition) is a sweeping novel about the last five decades of Great Britain as experienced through three generations of women, their lives, and a common interest in the leftist movement. Reviewing the novel for London’s Sunday Telegraph, Anne Chisholm found the book difficult to read, but noted the author’s growth. Chisholm wrote, “Doris Lessing never lacked the moral courage or been afraid to change her mind. Here, she reconsiders and even rejects many of the ideas which have conditioned her life and writing.”
Lessing explored the human condition in the four short novels which make up 2004’s The Grandmothers. Three of them touch on love, while the fourth marks a return to science fiction. In 2006, her novel The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog went back to the characters she introduced in the 1999 novel Mara and Dann: An Adventure. Both were science fiction adventures set in the future during an ice age.
While Lessing continued to write as she neared 90 years of age, she was indifferent to learn that she had won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature for her impressive body of work. Linton Weeks of the Washington Post quoted her as saying “I can’t say I’m overwhelmed with surprise . I’m 88 years old and they can’t give the Nobel to someone who’s dead, so I think they were probably thinking they’d better give it to me now before I’ve popped off.” Despite her cynicism, many critics believed she deserved the honor, which she accepted in a January of 2008 ceremony in London.
Lessing continued to write after receiving the award, including a 2008 novel that presents an alternate history about her parents, Alfred and Emily. When she was given the Nobel, Philip Hensher of the Spectator summed up her importance, stating “She is one of the greatest novelists in English.”
The Grass Is Singig, Crowell (New York City), 1950.
This Was the Old Chief’s Country, M. Joseph (London), 1952.
Martha Quest (first in “Children of Violence” series), M. Joseph, 1952.
Five: Short Novels, M. Joseph, 1953.
A Proper Marriage (second in “Children of Violence” series), M. Joseph, 1954.
Retreat to Innocence, M. Joseph, 1956.
Habitat of Loving, Crowell, 1958.
A Ripple from the Storm (third in “Children of Violence” series), M. Joseph, 1958.
The Golden Notebook, Simon & Schuster (New York City), 1962.
A Man and Two Women, Simon & Schuster, 1963.
African Stories, Simon & Schuster, 1965.
Landlocked (fourth in “Children of Violence” series),MacGibbon & Kee (London), 1965.
The Four-Gated City (fifth in “Children of Violence” series), MacGibbon & Kee, 1969.
Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Knopf (New York City), 1971.
The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories, Knopf, 1972.
The Summer Before the Dark, Knopf, 1973.
The Memoirs of a Survivor, Knopf, 1975.
To Room Nineteen: Collected Stories, Vol. 1, Jonathan Cape (London), 1978.
The Temptation of Jack Orkney: Collected Stories, Vol. 2, Jonathan Cape, 1978.
Shikasta Re: Colonized Planet Five (first in the “Canopus in Argos: Archives” series), Knopf, 1979.
The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (second in the “Canopus in Argos: Archives” series), Knopf, 1980.
The Sirian Experiments: The Report of Ambien II, of the Five (third in the “Canopus in Argos: Archives” series), Knopf, 1981.
The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (fourth in the “Canopus in Argos: Archives” series), Knopf, 1982.
Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (fifth in the “Canopus in Argos: Archives” series), Knopf, 1983.
(As Jane Somers) The Diary of a Good Neighbor, Knopf, 1983.
(As Jane Somers) If the Old Could , Knopf, 1984.
The Good Terrorist, Knopf, 1985.
The Fifth Child, Knopf, 1988.
The Doris Lessing Reader, Knopf, 1989.
The Real Thing: Stories and Sketches, HarperCollins (New York City), 1992.
Love, Again HarperCollins, 1996.
Mara and Dann: An Adventure, HarperCollins, 1999.
The Old Age of El Magnificato, Flamingo (London), 2000.
Ben, in the World, HarperCollins, 2000.
The Sweetest Dream, HarperCollins, 2002.
The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels, HarperCollins, 2004.
The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, HarperCollins, 2006.
The Cleft, HarperCollins (New York City), 2007.
Alfred and Emily, Fourth Estate (London), 2008.
Going Home, M. Joseph, 1957.
In Pursuit of the English: A Documentary, Simon &Schuster, 1961.
Particularly Cats, Simon & Schuster, 1967.
(Edited by Paul Schlueter) A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, Interviews, Knopf, 1974.
Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, Harper & Row (New York City), 1987.
The Wind Blows Away Our Words, Vintage (New York City), 1987.
Particularly Cats And Rufus, Knopf, 1991.
African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe, HarperCol-lins, 1992.
Under My Skin: Volume 1 of My Autobiography, to 1949, HarperCollins, 1994.
Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949—1962, HarperCollins, 1997.
Time Bites, HarperCollins, 2004.
Mr. Dollinger, produced in Oxford, England, 1958.
Each In His Own Wilderness, produced in London, England, 1958.
The Truth About Billy Newton, produced in Salisbury, England, 1961.
Play with a Tiger, M. Joseph (London, England), 1962.
Fourteen Poems, Scorpion Press (London, England), 1959.
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BORN: 1919, Kermanshah, Persia
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, drama
The Grass Is Singing (1950)
The Golden Notebook (1962)
Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971)
The Summer before the Dark (1973)
Considered among the most powerful contemporary novelists, Doris Lessing has explored many of the most
important ideas, ideologies, and social issues of the twentieth century. Her works display a broad range of interests, including such topics as racism, communism, feminism, psychology, and mysticism. Lessing created strong-willed, independent heroines who suffer emotional crises in a male-dominated society, thus anticipating many feminist concerns. These works, particularly the five-volume Children of Violence series and The Golden Notebook (1962), were especially praised for their complex narrative techniques and convincing characterizations. During the 1970s and 1980s, Lessing attempted to function as a visionary figure for what she termed the “emancipated reader.” Her works of speculative fiction, which make use of science fiction elements, are characterized by a sense of imminent apocalypse. Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up in Africa Doris May Tayler was born in Kermanshah, Persia, on October 22, 1919, to Alfred Cook Tayler, an employee of the Imperial Bank of Persia, and Emily Maude McVeagh Tayler, a nurse. In 1924 Lessing's father took the family to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), hoping to make a fortune growing corn and tobacco and panning for gold. The family found little fortune on its new farm, which was located in a remote corner of the Rhodesian bush not far from the border with Mozambique. Lessing was educated first at a convent school and then at a government school for girls, both in the capital city of Salisbury. She returned home at about age twelve because of recurrent eye troubles and received no further formal education. At age sixteen she began working as a typist for a telephone company and was later employed by a law firm. She also worked as a Hansard secretary in the Rhodesian Parliament, then as a typist for the Guardian, a South African newspaper based in Cape Town.
In the 1940s, South Africa functioned under a system known as apartheid, which is Afrikaans for “separateness.” This government-sponsored system involved designating certain buildings, areas, and services for use only by certain races and forbade people of different races from marrying. It also led to the segregation of living areas within South Africa, with black citizens of different cultural groups kept separate from each other; this allowed the white Afrikaners, who were descended from European colonists and made up a small percentage of the population, to remain in control of the large non-white population.
In 1949 Lessing left Africa behind for London. Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), was published the following year and was immediately well received. Like many of the novels and short stories that would follow its debut, The Grass Is Singing deals with settings, characters, and issues very close to its author's experience of Rhodesian society and, in particular, relations between white colonists and black citizens. “The Grass Is Singing,” an essayist for Feminist Writers explained, “was hailed as a breakthrough look at the horrors of South African apartheid. However, upon a second reading, the novel may seem focused on the desperate situation of a lively woman who is beat down by the grayness of her married life and the bleakness of anything the future might hold. Yet another reading of the novel brings out the harshness of the African landscape, the overwhelming power of nature, and the impending defeat of any human who tries to challenge those obstacles. Therein lies the strength of Lessing's talent, the layering of story within story.”
The Golden Notebook and Beyond Lessing's major and most controversial novel is The Golden Notebook (1962), wherein she explores, as a New Statesman reviewer noted, what it is like to be “free and responsible, a woman in relation to men and other women, and to struggle to come to terms with one's self about these things and about writing and politics.” Lessing once explained that the work is “a novel about certain political and sexual attitudes that have force now; it is an attempt to explain them, to objectivize them, to set them in relation with each other. So in a way it is a social novel, written by someone whose training—or at least whose habit of mind—is to see these things socially, not personally.” In its structure, the novel is really two novels, divided in four sections. Lessing split it into four parts to “express a split person. I felt that if the artist's sensibility is to be equated with the sensibility of the educated person, then it is logical to use different styles to express different kinds of people.” She felt that the “personality is very much what is remembered; [the form] enabled me to say to the reader: Look, these apparently so different people have got so-and-so in common, or these things have got this in common. If I had used a conventional style, the old-fashioned novel, … I would not have been able to do this kind of playing with time, memory and the balancing of people…. I like The Golden Notebook even though I believe it to be a failure, because it at least hints at complexity.”
After her initial flourishing as a writer, during which time she explored the Africa of her youth from her new home in London, Lessing turned away from the land of her past and toward new settings: inner space and outer space. Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) is a novel of ideas based on her interest in the views of British psychiatrist R. D. Laing. In subsequent novels, Lessing has continued to produce work critiquing modern society. In contrast to the realism that marked her earlier novels, Lessing's work of the late twentieth century would take startling new forms. In the five “Canopus” books she explores the destruction of life brought about by catastrophe and tyranny.
Return to Africa After leaving Southern Rhodesia in 1949, Lessing returned to Africa only once, in 1956, an experience she recounts in Going Home. After this first homecoming, the white minority government blocked any future returns because of Lessing's criticism of apartheid. It was not until the 1980s, after years of civil war and thousands of deaths brought the black majority to power in the newly christened Zimbabwe, that Lessing could return. In African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe she chronicles her trips to southern Africa in 1982, 1988, 1989, and 1992. On one level, this book offers the keen observations of a new nation's growing pains through the eyes of someone who is neither an insider nor an outsider. She saw first a country trying to come to terms with the outcome of a long and bloody civil war based on race. In subsequent trips, she found exuberance, corruption, and finally decline.
Accolades and Criticism Late in Life In 2007, Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. That same year, she published The Cleft, a novel almost universally panned by critics. In her 2008 novel Alfred and Emily, Lessing returns to the subject of her childhood in Rhodesia and the profound effects of World War I on her parents.
Works in Literary Context
Lessing's influences are diverse. Throughout her career as a writer, she has espoused various philosophic allegiances, and, not surprisingly, her fiction reflects these commitments. Retreat to Innocence (1956) is an explicitly pro-Marxist work, but since her defection from the Communist party, she has disowned that novel. The Golden Notebook reflects a Jungian interest, partly in the nature of the psychoanalyst whom Lessing's protagonist in that novel consults. Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), the novel published immediately after The Golden Notebook and the last two parts of the Children of Violence series, shows a distinct correlation to and dependence upon the work of psychiatrist R. D. Laing.
While Lessing's work has its referents, particularly psychiatrists and psychologists, Lessing is unafraid of carving out new ground for her work.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Lessing's famous contemporaries include:
Thomas Keneally (1935–): This Australian novelist is best known for his novel Schindler's List (1982), which was later adapted into a film of the same title.
Iris Murdoch (1919–1999): An Irish novelist renowned for such works as Under the Net (1954).
Aldous Huxley (1894–1963): English novelist, essayist, poet, and short story writer best known for his novel Brave New World (1932).
John Cheever (1912–1982): An American fiction writer most famous for his highly acclaimed short stories, including “The Enormous Radio” (1947).
Nelson Mandela (1919–): After spending twenty-seven years as a political prisoner of the apartheid government of South Africa, Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994 after the country's first fully racially representative election.
Journey through Inner Space When Briefing for a Descent into Hell was published, critics noticed the contrasts between it and Lessing's previous work. Even though the same dominant themes of mental imbalance and psychic phenomena that were used in The Golden Notebook and in The Four-Gated City (1969) are to be found here as well, there are some major differences. For one thing, Briefing for a Descent into Hell has as its protagonist one of the few men to serve this purpose in any of Lessing's longer fiction: Charles Watkins is a classics professor at Cambridge University, and his mental and emotional “journey” and eventual restoration to psychic health constitute the book's plot. Lessing called this book “inner-space fiction,” a label intended to suggest that it is Watkins's mental health rather than any actual physical journey that is at the heart of the book.
Structural Experimentation The Golden Notebook (1962) has generally been acclaimed as Lessing's masterpiece, though it is considerably less accessible than any of her earlier novels or most of her subsequent ones. It is a complex maze of differing perspectives on the same woman's life and circumstances and structurally is an exceedingly carefully controlled series of overlapping “notebooks.” Lessing has repeatedly said that “the point [in this book] was the relation of its parts to each other” and that its “meaning is in the shape.” Her original intent was to write a short formal novel that would serve to enclose all the rest of her material in the book, but since the formal novel is “ridiculous” when it “can't say a … thing,” she split up the material not included in the short formal novel into four “notebooks,” each concerned with a different though similar aspect of one woman's life, and then in turn divided each notebook into four parts. The result is a technique in which first a part of the short novel—called “Free Women”—is given, then one part each of the black, red, blue, and yellow notebooks; this pattern is repeated four times. Then there is a short section of the entire novel, also called “The Golden Notebook,” followed by the concluding “Free Women” section that ends the novel. Hence the reader can either read from page one to the end of the book, or, if the reader wishes, read all the parts of each notebook and “Free Women” together.
Works in Critical Context
Although Lessing has enjoyed a long and fruitful career, critical response to her work has been sharply divided. She has at times received near universal acclaim for works like The Golden Notebook, but then readers must contend with The Summer Before the Dark, which has the ironic distinction of being both one of Lessing's most popular—and profitable—novels and one of the most severely criticized.
The Golden Notebook When The Golden Notebook was published in 1962, it was welcomed with both enthusiasm and some apprehension at its unique structure. Frederick R. Karl, writing for Contemporary Literature called it “the most considerable work by an English author in the 1960s,” though he also considers it a “carefully-organized but verbose, almost clumsily written novel.” Where the author succeeds, according to Karl, is “in her attempt to write honestly about women.” Walter Allen expressed similar sentiments in The Modern Novel, stating, “As a work of art, The Golden Notebook seems to me to fail. The structure is clumsy, complicated rather than complex.” However, he considers the book impressive “as an exposition of the emotional problems that face an intelligent woman who wishes to live in the kind of freedom a man may take for granted.” Paul Schlueter concurs, noting that the novel “captures the authentic quality of what it is to be a woman, especially a woman in a man's world.'
Responses to Literature
- Read The Golden Notebook. Analyze your reaction to the formal experimentation of the text. Do you believe this form for this text is the best? Why or why not?
- Read Dante's Inferno and Briefing for a Descent into Hell. Both of these texts describe hellish journeys.compare Lessing and Dante's portrayals of “hell.” Analyze the effects each achieves in your understanding of the texts.
- Using the Internet and the library, research the word apartheid, particularly as it relates to the racial divisions in Africa. In a brief essay, compare your findings to Lessing's representation of racism in Africa.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Lessing's work often revolves around journeys, both literal and psychological. Here are some other works about journeying and how they change a person's soul and mind.
Into the Wild (1996), a nonfiction work by Jon Krakauer. Based on the life of Christopher McCandless, this text follows the last days of a young man who leaves behind his privileged family to explore the world only to perish in the wilds of Alaska.
The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), a religious allegory by John Bunyan. This allegory describes the journey that Christians must take in order to avoid sin and, ultimately, make it to heaven.
The Lord of the Rings (1955), a trilogy of novels by J. R. R. Tolkien. The three novels describe the journey of Frodo, a hobbit, to Mordor to destroy a ring of evil power while facing along the way bigger and fiercer enemies who wish to kill him.
Bertelsen, Eve, ed. Doris Lessing. Johannesburg: McGraw-Hill, 1985.
Chown, Linda E. Narrative Authority and Homeostasis in the Novels of Doris Lessing and Carmen Martín Gaite. New York: Garland, 1990.
Christ, Carol P. Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest. Boston: Beacon, 1980.
“Doris Lessing (1919–).” In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 1. Edited by Carolyn Riley. Detroit: Gale Research, 1973.
Draine, Betsy. Substance under Pressure: Artistic Coherence and Evolving Form in the Novels of Doris Lessing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.
Fahim, Ahadia S. Doris Lessing and Sufi Equilibrium: The Evolving Form of the Novel. New York: St. Martin's, 1994.
Fishburn, Katherine. The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing: A Study in Narrative Technique. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985.
Gardiner, Judith Kegan. Rhys, Stead, Lessing and the Politics of Empathy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Morris, Robert K. Continuance and Change: The Contemporary British Novel Sequence. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972.
Roberts, Robin. A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Lessing, Doris (May)
LESSING, Doris (May)
Nationality: British. Born: Doris Taylor in Kermanshah, Persia, 22 October 1919; moved with her family to England, then to Banket, Southern Rhodesia, 1924. Education: Dominican Convent School, Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, 1926-34. Family: Married 1) Frank Charles Wisdom in 1939 (divorced 1943), one son and one daughter; 2) Gottfried Lessing in 1945 (divorced 1949), one son. Career: Au pair, Salisbury, 1934-35; telephone operator and clerk, Salisbury, 1937-39; typist, 1946-48; clerk, Cape Town Guardian, 1949; moved to London, 1949; member of the editorial board, New Reasoner, 1956. Awards: Maugham award, for fiction, 1954; Médicis prize (France), 1976; Austrian State prize, 1981; Shakespeare prize (Hamburg), 1982; W. H. Smith literary award, 1986. Honorary degrees: Princeton, 1989; Harvard, 1997; Oxford, 1997; Durham, 1997; Warwick, 1997. Member: American Academy, 1974 (associate member); honorary fellow, Modern Language Association (U.S.), 1974; distinguished fellow in literature, University of East Anglia, 1991.
This Was the Old Chief's Country: Stories. 1952.
Five: Short Novels. 1953.
No Witchcraft for Sale: Stories and Short Novels. 1956.
The Habit of Loving. 1957.
A Man and Two Women: Stories. 1963.
African Stories. 1964.
Winter in July. 1966.
The Black Madonna. 1966.
Nine African Stories, edited by Michael Marland. 1968.
The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories. 1972; as The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories, 1972.
Collected African Stories. 1981.
This Was the Old Chief's Country. 1973.
The Sun Between Their Feet. 1973.
(Stories), edited by Alan Cattell. 1976.
Collected Stories: To Room Nineteen and The Temptation of Jack Orkney. 2 vols., 1978; as Stories, 1 vol., 1978.
The Real Thing: Stories and Sketches. 1992.
London Observed: Stories and Sketches. 1992.
The Grass Is Singing. 1950.
Children of Violence:
Martha Quest. 1952.
A Proper Marriage. 1954.
A Ripple from the Storm. 1958.
The Four-Gated City. 1969.
The Golden Notebook. 1962.
Briefing for a Descent into Hell. 1971.
The Summer Before the Dark. 1973.
The Memoirs of a Survivor. 1974.
Canopus in Argos: Archives:
The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five. 1980.
The Sirian Experiments. 1981.
The Making of the Representative for Planet 8. 1982.
The Sentimental Agents. 1983.
The Diaries of Jane Somers. 1984.
The Diary of a Good Neighbour. 1983.
If the Old Could—. 1984.
The Good Terrorist. 1985.
The Fifth Child. 1988.
Each His Own Wilderness (produced 1958). In New English Dramatists, 1959.
Play with a Tiger (produced 1962). 1962.
The Storm, from a play by Alexander Ostrovsky (produced 1966).
The Singing Door (for children), in Second Playbill 2, edited by Alan Durband. 1973.
The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (opera libretto), music by Philip Glass, from the novel by Lessing (produced 1988).
The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, Five (libretto). n.d.
The Grass Is Singing, from her own novel, 1962;Care and Protection and Do Not Disturb (both in Blackmail series), 1966; Between Men, 1967; The Habit of Loving (co-author on a series).
Fourteen Poems. 1959.
Going Home. 1957; revised edition, 1968.
In Pursuit of the English: A Documentary. 1960.
Particularly Cats. 1967; as Particularly Cats—and Rufus, 1991.
A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, Interviews, edited by Paul Schlueter. 1974.
Prisons We Choose to Live Inside. 1986.
The Wind Blows Away Our Words (on Afghanistan). 1987.
The Lessing Reader. 1989.
African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (memoir). 1992.
Putting Questions Differently: Interviews with Doris Lessing, 1964-1994. 1994.
Under My Skin (volume 1 of autobiography). 1996.
Walking in the Shade (volume 2 of autobiography). 1997.*
Lessing: A Bibliography by Catharina Ipp, 1967; Lessing: A Checklist of Primary and Secondary Sources by Selma R. Burkom and Margaret Williams, 1973; Lessing: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism by Dee Seligman, 1981; Lessing: A Descriptive Bibliography of Her First Editions by Eric T. Brueck, 1984.
Lessing by Dorothy Brewster, 1965; Lessing, 1973, and Lessing's Africa, 1978, both by Michael Thorpe; Lessing: Critical Studies edited by Annis Pratt and L. S. Dembo, 1974; The City and the Veld: The Fiction of Lessing by Mary Ann Singleton, 1976; Boulder-Pushers: Women in the Fiction of Margaret Drabble, Lessing, and Iris Murdoch by Carol Seiler-Franklin, 1979; Notebooks / Memoirs / Archives: Reading and Re-reading Lessing edited by Jenny Taylor, 1982; Lessing by Lorna Sage, 1983; Lessing by Mona Knapp, 1984; Lessing and Women's Appropriation of Science Fiction by Mariette Clare, 1984; The Unexpected Universe of Lessing: A Study in Narrative Technique by Katherine Fishburn, 1985; Lessing edited by Eve Bertelsen, 1985; Critical Essays on Lessing edited by Claire Sprague and Virginia Tiger, 1986; Forbidden Fruit: On the Relationship Between Women and Knowledge in Lessing, Slema Lagerlöf, Kate Chopin, and Margaret Atwood by Bonnie St. Andrews, 1986; Rereading Lessing: Narrative Patterns of Doubling and Repetition by Claire Sprague, 1987, and In Pursuit of Lessing: Nine Nations Reading edited by Sprague, 1990; Lessing: Life, Work, and Criticism by Katherine Fishburn, 1987; The Theme of Enclosure in Selected Works of Lessing by Shirley Budhos, 1987; Lessing: The Alchemy of Survival edited by Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose, 1988; Lessing by Ruth Whittaker, 1988; Lessing by Jeannette King, 1989; Understanding Lessing by Jean Pickering, 1990; Wolf and Lessing: Breaking the Mold edited by Ruth Saxton and Jean Tobin, 1994; Doris Lessing by Margaret Moan Rowe, 1994; Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change by Gayle Greene, 1994.* * *
Doris Lessing is a vigorous and prolific writer with a high sense of the writer's social and political responsibility, which comes out in both her themes and her narrative modes. In addition to her numerous novels she had enough published short stories by 1978 to fill four volumes. These were divided, as is her overall oeuvre, between the earlier stories dealing with Africa, where she was born, and later stories mainly set in London, where she came to live.
The African stories show Lessing to be a writer in the realist tradition keen to draw her readers' attention to what is going on in a particular community well known to the writer. The stories reflect the colonial history of Africa and deal with its natural features. One such story is "The Old Chief Mshlanga," narrated in the third person but from a position close to that of the girl who is the protagonist. The daughter of English parents, she is brought up to think of England as home and Africa as strange and foreign. But of course that strange and foreign landscape must be explored, and its exploration will involve contact with its people, otherwise known only in the form of household servants. The girl ventures out on her own and meets a chief, who addresses her with a respectful courtesy she is too immature to reciprocate. On a later trip she finds herself in the village of the old chief again. This time their conversation leaves her with a sense of self-criticism. The landscape seems to be accusing her: "It seemed to say to me: you walk here as a destroyer." There is one more sight of the chief, when he comes to her father's farm to protest against the farmer's demand for 20 of his goats in restitution for damage done to crops. When the farmer proves intractable the old chief leaves. His last words are translated: "All this land, this land you call yours, is his land, and belongs to our people." Soon afterwards the chief and his people are moved 200 miles away, "to a proper native reserve." The story ends with the girl visiting the deserted village a year or so later to find it "a festival of pumpkins," and she speculates that "the settler lucky enough to be allotted the lush warm valley" would find there an "unsuspected vein of richness."
The political point is made with no unnecessary rhetoric; and since we are kept close to the girl's point of view, the implications can be left open for the reader to spell out. This is of course true of most interesting stories, but Lessing is particularly good at controlling her endings. "The Black Madonna" is, as she herself remarked, much fuller of bile. It tells of the relationship between a released Italian prisoner with some artistic abilities and a British captain who is in charge of erecting a mock village for bombarding as part of a military tattoo. The captain becomes unintentionally drawn to the sentimental yet capable Italian, who paints a black peasant Madonna in his mock church. ("'Good God,' said the captain, 'you can't do that…. You can't have a black Madonna."') At the end the captain is in a hospital, and although he is drawn to the Italian's warmth and honesty, he cannot accept his offer of friendship. But the "stiff upper lip" is triumphant: "Not a sound escaped him, for the fear the nurses might hear." If the reader feels here something of D. H. Lawrence's criticism of British rigidity, that is evidence of Lessing's power.
The African stories overlap in their themes and concerns with those set elsewhere. A story with something of the bile of "The Black Madonna" is "Mrs. Fortescue." This concerns a 16-year-old schoolboy, Fred Danderlea, whose parents keep an off-license in London. An unhappy adolescent, he finds himself distant from his parents and no longer at ease with his older sister. The other occupant of the house is the longtime lodger Mrs. Fortescue, who frequently goes out in the evenings and is regularly visited by an elderly gentleman. Fred comes to realize that she is a prostitute, and this arouses an uncontrollable response in him. One evening he makes conversation with Mrs. Fortescue and then forces himself physically on her. The narrative vividly conveys his adolescent need and his crudity and gives Mrs. Fortescue's plaintive words ("That wasn't very nice, was it?") a curious pathos. The story's focus is on the instabilities, pains, and cruelties of adolescence and certainly does not suggest that the life of suburban London offers more vivid human possibilities than its colonial counterpart in Africa. Nevertheless in Lessing's stories we are usually aware of human potentialities trying to break through psychological and social restraints to achieve some kind of harmony.
Lessing's short stories do not always employ the realist mode. "Side Benefits of an Honourable Profession," for example, is narrated by a sophisticated unidentified voice of someone in the world of the theater and tells in gossipy style a number of stories to do with the vagaries of human relationships. "Report on the Threatened City" is in the mixed mode of the later science fiction about Canopus, and it takes us into a world on the verge of self-destruction. In a variety of ways, and in many varied settings, Lessing's fiction consistently attempts to make us face the disturbing facts about ourselves and the world we create. Because she is so prolific, not all the stories are of equal value. Nevertheless her overall achievement in the genre is worthy of attention and respect. The quality and interest of her longer works of fiction should not deter readers from the many pleasures to be found in her short fiction.
Doris Lessing (born 1919) was a South African expatriate writer known for her strong sense of feminism. A short story writer and novelist, as well as essayist and critic, Lessing was deeply concerned with the cultural inequities of her native land.
The heroines who populate the work of Doris Lessing belong to the avant garde of their day. Leftist, fiercely independent, feminist, her characters, like Lessing herself, are social critics rebelling against the cultural restrictions of their societies. And like their creator, Lessing's heroines populate two geographies: Southern Africa and England. Lessing's fiction closely parallels her own life. Her characters have experienced her experiences; they know what she knows.
The daughter of an English banker, Doris May Taylor was born in Kermanshah, Persia, on October 22, 1919. In 1925 the Taylor family moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to a farm 100 miles west of Mozambique. Lessing's childhood was spent in the hills near the farm. She attended convent school until an eye problem forced her to drop out at age 14. At that point her self-education began, mostly with the reading of the major nineteenth-century Russian, French, and English novelists.
In 1938 she moved to Salisbury, took an office job, and began writing. A year later, she married Frank Wisdom. The marriage, which produced a son and a daughter, ended in divorce in 1943. In 1945 she married Gottfried Lessing. That marriage also ended in divorce, in 1949, after producing one son.
In 1949 Lessing left Southern Rhodesia for England with her youngest son and the manuscript of her first book, The Grass Is Singing, in hand. The book, a chronicle of life in Africa which took its title from T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," was published the following year (1950) and was immediately well received.
After her arrival in England Lessing wrote a great number of short stories, books, plays, poems, essays, and reviews. Her most significant works include the short story collections This Was The Old Chief's Country (1951), A Man and Two Women (1963), and African Stories (1957) and the novels that make up 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)—as well as the novels Five (1953), Retreat to Innocence (1956), The Golden Notebook (1962), and Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971).
While Lessing was also prolific in producing non-fiction, it is in her fiction that she made her strongest statements. Her writing borders on the autobiographical. Her fictional accounts of Africa and England bear a strong resemblance to her own life, and the heroines of her novels greatly resemble each other and their creator. Her books all deal with the same themes: the problem of racism in British colonial Africa and the place of women in a male-dominated world and their escape from the social and sexual repression of that world. These are the themes of Lessing's life as well as her work.
While these and a few other subjects appear in almost all her work, they are most deeply explored and most fully realized in Lessing's two watershed works—the "Children of Violence" series and The Golden Notebook. The "Children of Violence" series spans most of her career. The five-novel series takes its heroine, Martha Quest, from a farm in central Africa to the capital of the colony—where she is exposed to city society—and on to London. The series, written from 1952 to 1969, is special as contemporary literature in two aspects: first, for its African setting, and second, for filtering that experience through the eyes of a woman.
Martha Quest, the first of the series, deals with the sexual and intellectual awakening of its protagonist once she leaves the claustrophobic farm setting. A Proper Marriage explores a failing marriage, and by its end Martha has left her husband and daughter for increased left-wing political involvement. The third book, A Ripple from the Storm, shows the failure of that political commitment to satisfy her social and personal needs, and Landlocked, which brings the series into the 1940s, completes Martha's estrangement from collective politics and from Africa. Postwar London is the setting for the final book, The Four-Gated City, in which the mature Martha has abandoned her political activism for introspection. The series ends with an apocalyptic vision of the future.
The Golden Notebook was Lessing's most ambitious and perhaps her most misunderstood book. Taken by critics as a latter-day tract on feminism, the book does have a layer of feminist philosophy. But at its core, The Golden Notebook has more to do with the rights of the individual in a society than with the role of women. The Golden Notebook is a carefully constructed work that builds on a short novel called Free Women. The main character of Free Women, Anna Wulf, a writer keeps a series of notebooks—black, red, yellow, and blue—which punctuate the novel. In effect, the heroine of Free Women steps out of the novel to comment on its action. The whole—Free Women and the notebooks—becomes The Golden Notebook.
The Golden Notebook with its meticulously crafted construction is about patterns—patterns in art and patterns in society. Freedom, the freedom to break these patterns, is Lessing's goal—for her characters, for her work, and for herself. Lessing also experimented with science fiction and fantasy: from 1979 to 1983 she wrote four novels, the "Canopus in Argos: Archives" series, whcih involve a struggle between good and evil set forth amidst galactic empires over thirty thousand years. One of them, The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight (1982), was the basis for a 1988 opera by the composer Philip Glass. In a perhaps whimsical attempt to examine how people would react to her writing if it was not done under the name of a famous author, Lessing wrote The Diary of Good Neighbor and If the Old Could … under the pseudonym "Jane Somers." The books sold poorly and were largely unreviewed until the real identify of the author became known.
Lessing never found any obstacles too daunting for her when it came to writing. In an interview with Dana Micucci of the Chicago Tribute she said, "It all depends on how you look at things. Suppose you don't expect anything to be easy? I never did. I had sticking power … I just got on with the work. And I think there are such things as writing animals. I just have to write."
Lessing also did some nonfiction work: In Pursuit of the English (Simon & Schuster, 1961) about her youth in London, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (Harper and Row, 1987), a collection of lectures, and The Wind Blows Away Our Words (Vintage Books, 1987), which described in detail the sufferings of Afghan refugees from the Soviet invasion of their country. Another example was African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe where she deplored the destruction of wildlife and the environment in that country, and criticized the narrow-mindedness of many of the minority white community there.
Doris Lessing's work is the work of an exile. As a white South African, she was an outsider to European society; as a socialist, she prohibited herself from re-entering Africa; as a woman, she was left out of a male-dominated culture; and as an artist, she was relegated to the outside of the collective of which she and her characters strived so hard to be a part. And her characters were exiles as well. But the Lessing heroines are not simply vehicles for social criticism; they are not just trumpets for certain causes. They are fully realized works of fiction. Lessing's contribution was not to any cause, but to literature.
A Small Personal Voice (1974) contains short pieces of analysis of the author's work by Lessing herself. The book is also useful for the transcripts of interviews with the writer which contain biographical information. Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives edited by Jenny Taylor (1982) is a book of critical analysis dealing specifically with the feminist and political aspects of Lessing's work. For more general analysis, see Contemporary Writers: Doris Lessing, by Lorna Sage (1983); Writers and Their Work, Doris Lessing, by Michael Thorpe (1973), Critical Essays on Doris Lessing, edited by Claire Sprague and Virginia Tiger (G.K. Hale, 1986) and Understanding Doris Lessing by Jean Pickering (University of South Carolina Press, 1990). Her interview with Dana Micucci can be found in the Chicago Tribute (January 3, 1993). One of several biographies, is Doris Lessing by Ruth Whittaker (St. Martin's Press, 1988). Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography details much of the author's life. African Laughter: Four Visits to ZImbabwe (Harper Collins, 1992) discusses the author's trips to Zimbabwe. □
Lessing, Doris (May)
LESSING, Doris (May)
LESSING, Doris (May). Also writes as Jane Somers. British (born Persia), b. 1919. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories, Science fiction/Fantasy, Plays/Screenplays, Poetry, Autobiography/Memoirs. Career: Writer. Publications: NOVELS: The Grass Is Singing, 1950; Martha Quest, 1952; A Proper Marriage, 1954; Retreat to Innocence, 1956; A Ripple from the Storm, 1958; The Golden Notebook, 1962; Landlocked, 1965; The Four-Gated City, 1969; Briefing for a Descent into Hell, 1971; The Summer before Dark, 1973; The Memoirs of a Survivor, 1974; Re Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta, 1979; The Marriages between Zones 3, 4, and 5, 1980; The Sirian Experiments, 1981; The Making of the Preresentative for Planet 8, 1982; The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire, 1983; The Good Terrorist, 1985; The Fifth Child, 1988; Love Again, 1996; Mara and Dann, 1999; Ben, in the World, 2000; The Old Age of El Magnifico, 2001; The Sweetest Dream, 2001; The Grandmothers, 2003. SHORT STORIES: This Was The Old Chief's Country, 1951; Five, 1953; The Habit of Loving, 1957; A Man and Two Women, 1963; African Stories, 1964; Winter in July, 1966; The Black Madonna, 1966; The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories, 1972; The Sun between Their Feet, 1973; Sunrise on the Veld, 1975; A Mild Attack of the Locusts, 1977; To Room Nineteen, 1978; The Temptation of Jack Orkney, 1978; London Observed: Stories and Sketches (in US as The Real Thing), 1992. NON-FICTION: Going Home, 1957, rev. ed., 1968; In Pursuit of the English, 1960; Particularly Cats, 1967; Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, 1987; The Wind Blows Away Our Words, 1987; Particularly Cats and More Cats, 1989; African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe, 1992; Under My Skin, 1994; Walking in the Shade, 1997. PLAYS: Each His Own Wilderness, 1958; Play with a Tiger, 1962; The Singing Door, 1973. OTHER: Fourteen Poems, 1959; A Small Personal Voice (essays & interviews), 1974; The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (libretto for opera), 1988; Doris Lessing Reader, 1990; Putting the Questions Differently: Interviews with Doris Lessing, 1964-1994, 1996. AS JANE SOMERS: The Diary of a Good Neighbour, 1983; If the Old Could, 1984; The Diary of Jane Somers, 1984. Address: c/o Jonathan Clowes Ltd., 10 Iron Bridge House, Bridge Approach, London NW1 8BD, England.
(Born Doris May Taylor; has also written under the pseudonym Jane Somers) Persian-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, poet, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, and travel writer.DORIS LESSING: INTRODUCTION
DORIS LESSING: PRINCIPAL WORKS
DORIS LESSING: PRIMARY SOURCES
DORIS LESSING: GENERAL COMMENTARY
DORIS LESSING: TITLE COMMENTARY
DORIS LESSING: FURTHER READING
Lessing, Doris May