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||Doris (May) Lessing (1919-2013 ) original surname Tayler|
Persian (Iranian)-born British writer, whose novels and short stories are largely concerned with people caught in the social and political upheavals of the 20th century. Central themes in Lessing's work are feminism (see also Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedman, Germaine Greer, Marilyn French), the battle of the sexes, individuals in search of wholeness, and the dangers of technological and scientific hubris. Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. Since 1949, she lived in England but she was also considered an African writer because she grew up and was educated in Zimbabwe (former Rhodesia).
"When I was first in England I was disturbed all the time in my deepest sense of probability because the sun went down at four in the middle of an active afternoon, filling a cold, damp, remote sky with false pathos. Or, at eleven in the morning, instead of blazing down direct, a hand's span from centre, it would appear on a slant and in the wrong place, at eight o'clock position, a swollen, misshapen, watery ghost of a thing peering behind chimney-pots. The sun in England should be feminine, as it is in Germany." (from Going Home, 1957)
Doris Lessing spent her early childhood in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran). Her English-born father, Alfred Cook Tayler, who had lost his leg and health in World War I, was a bank clerk with the Imperial Bank of Persia. Emily McVeagh, Lessing's mother, had been trained as a nurse. After the war the Tayler's moved to Kermanshah and later Tehran. In the mid-1920s the family bought with their life savings a maize farm in the district of Banket, in the Lomagundi area of Southern Rhosesia, where Lessing grew up with her younger brother Harry. Her childhood was lonely, the nearest neighbours were miles away and there was no real roads between the farms.
In 1926 Lessing was sent to a convent school in Salisbury (now
Harare), where the Roman Catholic teachers tried to convert her from
the family's Protestant faith. "I was cripplingly homesick," Lessing
later said. She left the Girls' High School at the age of fourteen and
then earned her living as a nursemaid, telephone operator and clerk. At
nineteen she married Frank Wisdom, a civil servant; they had two
children. The marriage ended in 1943. For some years Lessing was an
active member of the Communist Party, which was formally banned in
This period of her life is reflected in A Ripple from the Storm (1958) of the five-volume sequence Children of the Violence,
the first four of which were set in a fictional African colony,
Zambesia. In 1943 Lessing married the German political activist
Gottfried Anton Lessing, a member of the inner circle of the Rhodesian
Communist Party. He was the model for Anton Hesse in A Ripple from the Storm and Willi Rodde in The Golden Notebook (1962).
A collection of Lessing's stories, entitled Der Zauber ist nicht verkäuflich,
was published in 1956 by the East German publisher Die Tribüne.
Gottfried Lessing became later the German ambassador to Uganda; he and
his third wife were murdered in 1979 by troops of Idi Amin.
Lessing's second marriage also failed and in 1949 she moved to
England with her youngest child and the manuscript of her novel. "I had
two marriages behind me, but I did not feel I had been really
married," she wrote in her autobiography. Declared a Prohibited Immigrant she was barred from Rhodesia. For a short period
she shared with a South African woman a large flat in which two
rooms were let to prostitutes.This experience provided material
for the play In Pursuit of the English (1961). Lessing's first novel, The Grass is Singing, came out in 1950; its title was adopted from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land:
"If there were the sound of water only / Not the cicada / And dry grass
singing". Set in Rhodesia, the story focused on a poor white farm
woman, Mary Turner, and her weak husband. She has a relationship with
her African servant, Moses, who eventually kills her. The novel was
attacked in South Africa and Rhodesia. Moreover, Lessing's American
publisher tried to pressure the author to revise the rape scene of the
white protagonist by a black man, "in accordance," as the publisher
explained, "with the mores of the country." (State of Peril: Race and Rape in South African Literature by Lucy Valerie Graham, 2012, p. 88)
From the 1950s onwards Lessing supported herself and her son by writing. Disillusioned with Communist policies and disgusted at the one-sidedness of Communist literary criticism, Lessing left the party in the mid-1950s. She underwent Jungian analysis and also studied Sufism under the guidance of Idres Shah. In 1979 Lessing set up a Sufi Trust for one hundred thousand dollars.
Since her childhood years, Lessing was a cat lover. "Knowing
cats, a lifetime of cats, what is left is a sediment of sorrow quite
different from that due to humans: compounded of pain for their
helplessness, of guilt on behalf of us all." (On Cats by Doris Lessing, 2008, p. 215) At the age of three Lessing got a stray cat from her parents, but she had to give away when the family moved to. Southern Rhodesia. There
she took care of cats, who lived on the farm. Later in life, when
Lessing lived with her son in London with her son, she had a cat
called Yum-Yum; the name was from a character from the operetta Mikado. Lessing said that she "thought it funny to call her after a glamorous future empress." ('A Life in the Day: Doris Lessing, Nobel winning novelist' by in Sue Fox, The Times, October 19, 2008)
Many critics consider Children of Violence, Lessing's semi-autobiographical series of novels about Martha Quest, her most substantial work. Four-Gated City (1969), the last volume, closes with Martha's death in destroyed world at the end of the twentieth century. It has been said that Children of Violence and more The Canopus in Argos reflect the influence of Sufist thought on Lessing's literary work and concern with the union of the soul with a Higher Being.
Diary of a Good Neighbor (1983) and If the Old Could (1984) were published under the name Jane Somers to dramatize the problems of unknown writers. The use of a pseudonym also helped Lessing to experiment again with different type of fiction.
Lessing wrote poems, plays, and several science fiction novels. One of her most widely read and translated works is The Golden Notebook, an experimental novel, which was greeted upon its publication as a landmark of the Women's Movement. Noteworthy, it was not family but sexual fulfilment was placed at the centre of women's lives. (see Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing by Lara Feigel, 2018) The story deals with the personal crisis of a writer, Anna Wulf, who keeps four notebooks while working on her fictional novel 'Free Women'. The 'yellow notebook' portrays Anna's alter ego, the 'red' is a political document, the 'blue' is a diary, and the 'black' is about Anna's earlier life. In the final section Anna gives the 'golden notebook' to her American lover. The 'Free Woman' narrative ends with Anna's acceptance that she cannot capture the absolute truth about herself in her notebooks.
Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) was written in a 'stream of conscious' style, and Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) portrayed the breakdown of society. The film version of Memoirs of a Survivor (1981) was directed by David Gladwell, starring Julie Christie, Christopher Guard, Leonie Mellinger, Debbie Hutchins. "Christie emerges as a fine character player despite her still potent attractiveness," wrote Derek Elley in Variety Film Guide (2000). "Director David Gladwell apparently did not have the budget to give a more solid look to the degenerating city."
The Good Terrorist (1985) examined with irony a militant left-wing life style and the short distance between idealism and terrorism. "Kindly, skilled people watched, and waited, judging when people (like herself, like Pat) were ripe, could be really useful. Unsuspected by the petit bourgeois who were in the thrall of the mental superstructure of fascist-imperialistic Britain, the poor slaves of propaganda, were these watchers, the observers, the poor people who held all the strings in their hands. In factories, in big industries – where Comrade Andrew wanted her, Alica, to work; in the civil service (that was just the place for Comrade Muriel!); in the B.B.C., in the big newspapers – everywhere in fact was this network, and even in little unimportant places like these two houses, Nos 43 and 45, just ordinary squats and communes. Nothing was too small to be overlooked, everyone with any sort of potential was noticed, observed, treasured... It gave her a safe, comfortable feeling." (from The Good Terrorist) Alice, the protagonist, sees herself as a committed revolutionary. She knows how to confront officials, spray paint slogans, but she really does not have an understanding of political movements. When explosives are stored under her own roof, she cares more about curtains than issues. As Alice tries to change the house in a genuine commune, she becomes the mother of parasitic companions.
Love, Again (1966) was set in the theatre world. The protagonist is an older woman, manager of a small theatre company, whose self-analysis runs in parallel with a new production. The Fifth Child (1988) was a mixture of genres from mythology to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In the story a middle-class English family is torn apart by the arrival of their fifth offspring, a monster, an untimely Neanderthal. The sequel to the novel, Ben, In the World (2000), portrayed the angry young monster trying to find an answer to the question, who he is. African Laughter (1994) was an account of Lessing's four visits to Zimbabwe between 1982 and 1992.
Mara &Dann (1999), set thousands of years in the future, tells of a brother and sister in a world full of violence and adventures. Its sequel was The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog (2006). The Sweetest Dream (2002) was a family story, in which Frances Lennox struggles in life with her two sons and her ex-husband, a phoney Communist. The last part of the book focused on Sylvia, the daughter of Johnny's second wife, who works as a doctor in Zimlia, a thinly veiled Zimbabwe. "But while the novel ends on an affecting note that attests to Ms. Lessing's undimmed talent for social and psychological observation, even this achievement cannot erase the memory of the lugubrious and unconvincing pages that have taken so long to get there." (Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, February 1, 2002)
The first volume of Lessing's autobiography, Under My Skin (1994), depicted her childhood in Zimbabwe. Walking in the Shade (1997) covered the years from 1959 to 1962. In Alfred & Emily (2008) Lessing returned to the story of her parents in the second half of the book; the first half played with the idea of what would their life be like if WW I had never occurred.
Lessing also collaborated with the composer Philip Glass on an opera based on the novel The Making of the Representative for Planet 8. Besides the Nobel Prize, Lessing's several literature awards include the Somerset Maugham Award (1956), the Shakespeare Prize of the West German Hamburger Stiftung (1982), the Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1982), the Palermo Prize (1987), the Premio Internaziolane Mondello (1987), and the W.H. Smith Award (1986). However, Lessing refused an offer of becoming a Dame of the British Empire on the grounds that there was no British Empire. Lessing died at her London home on November 17, 2013, at the age of 94.
For further reading: Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing by Lara Feigel (2018); 'Doris Lessing,' in Writers and Their Cats by Alison Natasi (2018); Doris Lessing by Susan Watkins (2011); Doris Lessing: Interrogating the Times by Phyllis Sternberg Perrakis, Debrah Raschke and Sandra Singer ( 2010); Doris Lessing by Carole Klein (1999); Spiritual Exploration in the Works of Doris Lessing by Phyllis Sternberg Perrakis (1999); Between East and West by Muge Galin (1997); Doris Lessing by Gayle Greene (1994); Woolf and Lessing, ed. by Ruth Saxton and Jean Tobin (1994); Fine-Tuning the Feminine Psyche by Lorei Cederdstrom (1990); Approaches to Teaching Lessing's The Golden Notebook, ed. by Carey Kaplan, Ellen Cronan Rose (1989); Doris Lessing by Ruth Whittaker (1988); Doris Lessing by Carey Kaplan (1988); Rereading Doris Lessing by Claire Sprague (1987); Doris Lessing by Mona Knapp (1985); The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing by Katherine Fishburn (1985); Substance Under Pressure by Betsy Draine (1983); Doris Lessing by Dee Seligman (1981); The City and the Veld: The Fiction of Doris Lessing by Mary Ann Singleton (1977); The Novels of Doris Lessing by P. Schlueter (1973); Doris Lessing by D. Brewster (1965)