Jacob Silkstone on one of the greatest writers of the twentieth-century.
In the aftermath of Doris Lessing’s death, aged 94, hundreds of articles (including, against my better judgement, this one) will attempt to summarise her writing life. But perhaps the most admirable of Lessing’s many qualities was her ability to resist the easy summary, to be — in the words of the Guardian’s Lisa Allardice — ‘a professional contrarian.’
Near the peak of her fame, Lessing submitted two novels to her British publisher (Jonathan Cape) under the pseudonym Jane Somers in order to ‘highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that ‘nothing succeeds like success’’; sure enough, both novels were rejected. After the success of ‘The Golden Notebook’, perhaps her greatest novel, she baffled critics seeking to pigeonhole her as a feminist writer by devoting several years of her writing career to the five-volume ‘Canopus in Argos’ sci-fi series. She later wrote the libretto for a ‘space opera’ based on the Canopus books, with music by Philip Glass. Her reaction to being told she’d won the Nobel Prize was a muttered ‘Oh, Christ… It’s been going on now for 30 years. One can’t get more excited,’ and her Nobel lecture was entitled ‘On not winning the Nobel Prize.’
Lessing was born in modern-day Iran and grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); she adopted the surname of her second husband, Gottfried Lessing, who was murdered by Tanzanian troops in Uganda ‘while supporting, in accordance with official policy [Gottfried Lessing was the East German ambassador], Idi Amin.’
John Leonard described her as ‘one of the half-dozen most interesting minds to have chosen to write fiction in English in this [the twentieth] century.’ She believed passionately that ‘a writer’s job is to provoke questions’; she occasionally went further and provoked anger, or at least disbelieving irritation from readers who had thought they understood her. ‘What I really can’t stand about the feminist revolution,’ she once said, ‘is that it produced some of the smuggest, most unselfcritical people the world has ever seen. They are horrible.’
Janna/Jane Somers, the protagonist of Lessing’s two pseudonymous novels (eventually combined as ‘The Diaries of Jane Somers’), somnambulates through years of her professional life as one of those unselfcritical products of the feminist revolution: a ‘child-woman’ (as Lessing described one of the models for the character) who helps edit an à la mode magazine called Lilith. The editorial staff of Lilith hold earnest and ultimately meaningless debates about whether the magazine’s name is outdated and needs replacing with something like Martha (‘more workaday, less of an incitement to envy’, and perhaps a sly nod to an earlier Lessing novel, ‘Martha Quest’). Reflecting on a talented younger editor, Jane observes that ‘she can fit words together, interview anyone, she has a mind like scissors, she never panics… Does she understand how things really work? What do I mean by that? A great deal. Everything.’
Jane discovers a little more about how things really work as she grows closer to the elderly Maudie Fowler: on first encountering Maudie at a chemist’s shop, Jane sees only ‘a witch’, but — partly motivated by guilt at her near-absence during the final months of her mother’s life, leaving her sister to take the role of carer — forges a connection with Maudie. Maudie comes to depend on Jane (who bathes her, cleans her house, provides a semblance of company), but Jane is also dependent on Maudie, who offers a window into a world beyond that of the Lilith editors (trendy, metropolitan, soulless).
The book, without Lessing’s name on the cover, came out to ‘sour nasty little reviews’, but is a moving meditation on ageing, and on the potential strength of connections between apparently dissimilar people.
Although her personal life was sometimes tumultuous (Lisa Allardice’s Guardian interview has Lessing, twice-divorced, reflecting that marriage ‘is not one of my talents’), Lessing’s work is clear-sighted, passionate, and profound. The young writer ‘intensely committed to… reform[ing] society’, the creator of Anna Wulf, and the older ‘professional contrarian’ whose interest in Sufism opened a new angle on the world, who was deeply sceptical of being ‘close to the literary machine’, are connected by a desire to set people ‘thinking in a slightly different way perhaps’, and by a deep concern for others.
Perhaps the moment that should linger with viewers of Lessing’s reaction to the Nobel Prize news is not the ‘Oh, Christ…’ but the moment, almost immediately after hearing the news, when Lessing turns away from the cameras to pay her taxi driver and say ‘Thank you very much.’ In writing and in life, the people matter far more than the prizes.