Doris Lessing

image-medium (42)Doris Lessing, Nobel prize winning author has died aged 94. Born Doris May Tayler in Iran, (then Persia) on October 22, 1919, her parents were British and she was brought up in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia and a British colony) where her father hoped to make money through maize farming.

Lessing attended an all-girls high school in the capital of Salisbury, from which she soon dropped out aged thirteen-  the end of her formal education.  She did become a self-educated intellectual, though & was a voracious reader.  Commenting that unhappy childhoods seem to produce fiction writers “Yes, I think that is true. Though it wasn’t apparent to me then. Of course, I wasn’t thinking in terms of being a writer then – I was just thinking about how to escape, all the time.” “twisted and warped by war, but we seem to forget it.”

Lessing left home at fifteen  to escape her mother and became a  nursemaid. Her employer gave her books on politics and sociology to read and she wrote stories, selling two to magazines in South Africa. Moving to Salisbury, the capital, in 1937,  she worked as a telephone operator for a year and at nineteen, married Frank Wisdom and had two children. Subsequently, feelings of being trapped and stereotyped caused her to leave her family. Becoming involved in  The Left Book Club, a group of Communists “who read everything, and who did not think it remarkable to read” she met like minded people, including Gottfried Lessing, whom she married. They had a son and she kept the surname Lessing despite leaving him.

By 1949, separated from Lessing, she had moved to London with her young son. She’d become disillusioned with the Communist movement, which she left altogether in 1954. Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing came out that year and began her career as a writer.  Her writing is varied, often very autobiographical, drawing on her experiences in Africa, her childhood memories and her concern / interest in politics, social concerns, injustice. She admired the “climate of ethical judgement” in 19thC novels and  incorporated 20thC ideas about consciousness and time. After writing the Children of Violence series (1951-1959), Lessing ‘broke new ground with The Golden Notebook (1962), “a daring narrative experiment, in which the multiple selves of a contemporary woman are rendered in astonishing depth and detail. Anna Wulf, like Lessing herself, strives for ruthless honesty as she aims to free herself from the chaos, emotional numbness, and hypocrisy afflicting her generation.”

’70s and ’80s novels included Briefing for a Descent into Hell, 1971 Memoirs of a Survivor, 1974 and science fiction Canopus in Argos: Archives, 1979-1983. Other works are The Good Terrorist (1985) and The Fifth Child (1988); she also published two novels under the pseudonym Jane Somers (The Diary of a Good Neighbour, 1983 and If the Old Could…, 1984) plus non fiction, including books about cats, which she loved. Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 – 1995 won the James Tait Black Prize for best biography. A collaboration with illustrator Charlie Adlard produced the graphic novel, Playing the Game.  In 1996 Love Again was published, a first novel in 7  years. 

Walking in the Shade, volume two of her autobiography, came out in 1997 and was nominated for National Book Critics Circle Award; two years later came “Mara and Dann”. In an interview in the London Daily Telegraph she said, “I adore writing it. I’ll be so sad when it’s finished. It’s freed my mind.” Ben, in the World, the sequel to The Fifth Child was published 2000

Amongst her literary honours were the shortlist for the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005 and the Nobel Prize for Literature 2007. Her final novel was Alfred and Emily.She was made a Companion of Honour, in 2000 having turned down the offer of becoming a Dame of the British Empire because there is no British Empire. Being a Companion of Honour, she explained, means “you’re not called anything – and it’s not demanding. I like that”. Being a Dame was “a bit pantomimey”. Books by and about Doris Lessing in Leeds Libraries

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