The Nobel prize-winning author's life was as restless and exhilarating as her novelsby Samantha Ellis / November 19, 2013 / Leave a comment
Doris Lessing, who died aged 94, penned over 50 works, including two operas © Elke Wetzig
“You should write, first of all, to please yourself. You shouldn’t care a damn about anybody else at all. But writing can’t be a way of life, the important part of writing is living. You have to live in such a way that your writing emerges from it.” This was Doris Lessing in 1964—provocative and passionate, as ever. She died on Sunday. She was 94. She had written over 50 books, from experimental novels to science-fiction inspired by Sufi mysticism to the whimsical On Cats.
Her restless imagination came from a restless life. Born in Persia in 1919, growing up on a failing farm in Rhodesia, she ran away to the city, then fled again, this time for England, leaving two failed marriages (and two children). She took one of her sons with her, and the manuscript of her first novel, The Grass is Singing (1950), which was both the harrowing story of a white woman murdered by her black servant, and a furious evisceration of colonial conceit.
She never pulled her punches. In 2007, her response to the news that she’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature—“Oh Christ! I couldn’t care less”—went viral.
I first came across Lessing in a dated 1970s anthology called Plays By and About Women. The stage direction at the top of Lessing’s Play with a Tiger (1958) specified trousers for the heroine, Anna, because “It is hard to play Act Two in a skirt.” I was intrigued. And soon, I was caught by Anna’s caustic, venomous voice, and by her dilemma of how to have a relationship with a man without being limited. As for the second act, it’s a freewheeling, non-naturalistic, exhilarating ride in which Anna and her lover revisit their pasts, rehearse possible futures and try to work out how to live.
Lessing took the story further in her 1962 masterpiece The Golden Notebook. The heroine, another Anna, is a feminist and a “free woman” but she’s tormented by writer’s block, conflicted about men, torn between work and motherhood, and wracked with doubt about her allegiance to communism. She is coming apart at the seams, filling the pages of different coloured notebooks—black for her thoughts on Africa, red for politics,…