“…that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”- Doris Lessing , as described by the Swedish Academy while awarding her with the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007. Not an exaggeration for a writer whose repertoire is as eclectic as the range of issues and concerns she explored. Her writings cover modernism, post-modernism, politics, socialism, communism, feminism, science fiction and Sufism. She is now regarded as one of the most important writers in English to emerge in the latter half of twentieth century, but her fiery words and the knack of speaking uncomfortable and unpalatable truths through her were a source of consternation in the literary and political circles in the post-war era.
Doris was not blessed with a perfectly happy childhood, a fact that lent a dystopian touch to her writings. Born on Oct. 22, 1919, in Persia(now Iran), to Capt. Alfred Taylor and Emily Maude Taylor, she did not have the comforts of a wealthy family. Her father had lost a leg in the First World War and her childhood was spent absorbing his bitter memories from the war. She was not enamored of the rigid lifestyle governed by rules and hygiene imposed on her by her mother, nor the strict style of the convent school she was enrolled in. She found solace in the natural world which she explored with her brother, and had dropped out of school by the age of fourteen. Self-educated there-after, this was the end of her formal education. By 15, to escape from her disciplinarian mother, she had left her home and started working as a nursemaid. This is also the time she started reading material on politics and sociology. It is around this time only that she started writing too.
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Lessing’s transformation into a self-educated intellectual and her strong belief that unhappy childhood seems to produce fiction writers is very much evident in her works. But her belief that most people cannot resist the currents of their time was challenged by her own lifestyle as she fought against the biological and cultural imperatives that destined her to sink into marriage and motherhood. She feels she didn’t get neurotic like a ‘whole generation of women (when they got married and bore children) as she had become a writer; the writer in her made her feel free, as writing to her was a process of “setting at a distance, taking the ‘raw. the individual, the uncivilized, the unexamined into the realm of the general”. The shackles of marriage and children could not stop the unconventional writer in her to come of age. Her radical views and her campaign against nuclear arms and South African apartheid forced her to take refuge in London at the end of her second marriage in 1949.
She began her career as a professional writer in 1950 with the publication of her first novel, ‘The Grass Is Singing’. It was her stand against racism, and the complacency and pettiness of the white colonial society. “The Children Of Violence’ series’ books(1952-69) bear the stamp of communism that played an important role in the early years of her career. The first in the series, Martha Quest(1952), and the second, ‘A Proper Marriage’, have autobiographical elements that come across in the eponymous protagonist’s growing up years in Africa and her ultimate rejection of marriage. ‘A Ripple From The Storm’, 1958, explored Marxist ideas, but her own involvement with communism was over by this time, and she was ready to break new ground.
In 1962, came her most groundbreaking work-”The Golden Notebook” was as much a daring experiment in narrative and structure as it was an oeuvre on human psychology. With this novel, she made her foray in what was later described as “inner space fiction”. It explored the life of Anna Wulf, a writer plagued by personal and artistic crisis. The innovative and intricate structure of the novel stands on four pillars, each, a notebook, written in a different colour. Black(for her life in Africa), Red(for her communist days), Yellow(an ongoing novel) and Blue(a diary recording her memories and dreams)-clearly, the four colours represent not only the hues shading Anna’s life, but Lessing’s too. Although associated with feminism for its exploration of female anger and sexuality, its main theme of mental breakdowns as a therapeutic process and a means of freeing one’s self from illusion has often been overlooked.
... beginning of the second quatrain, represents the evening of the writers life. "Sunset fadeth' explains how once the sun has gone down ... signify the passing of time, and therefore the writers life, showing that the writer is nearing the grave and cant possibly stop the ... formal way to say "you', represents the love of the writers life. The poem takes place in the autumn of his ...
The late 1960s heralded an adventurous phase in her writing, which would continue for the rest of her life. She dabbled with science fiction and fantasy, but Lessing’s science fiction wasn’t the conventional and popular escapist entertainment. It was an expedition into inner and outer spaces- dreams to decompose reality, outlandish worlds to deconstruct the way we live. ‘Briefing For a Descent Into Hell’, 1971, and ‘Memoirs Of A Survivor’, 1975 probed further the ‘inner space fiction’ she had fiddled with. in the late 60’s. But with the ‘Canopus In Argus’ series, (1979-83), she made a deep dive into space fiction with a bizarre touch of Sufism. She had been introduced to Sufism by Idries Shah, in mid 1960’s. With this series, she explores Sufism in a science fiction setting, stressing on the evolution of consciousness and the belief that individual liberation can come only by understanding the link between one’s fate and the fate of society. She explores and examines the individual’s relationship with collective life. The third book in the series, ‘The Sirian Experiments’, 1981, was short listed for the Booker Prize for fiction and this work she regards as her masterpiece.
After probing higher planes of existence through space fiction, she returned to realist fiction under the nom de plume, Jane Somers. It was her ploy to highlight the difficulties faced by new writers in getting published. The bizarre ploy was successful as the works were rejected early on and met with a lukewarm response, but once the true author was revealed, both the works- ‘Diary of A Good Neighbor’, 1983, and ‘If The Old Could …’ got a good response. ‘The Good Terrorist’, 1985, reflects her growing disinterest in various ideologies like feminism, communism and Marxism. Her own belief that love, for women, acts as a hindrance to their intellectual and political advancement, found a voice in this work.
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The escalation of age hasn’t brought about any decadence in the quality of her work or the feverish pace with which she churns them out. One of her best works, that led critics into comparisons with George Eliot came in the new millennium. The Sweetest Dream’, 2001, once again, highlighted her growing discontent and disenchantment with various ideologies. The book, captures and examines the cultural and political ethos of Britain in the last four decades of the twentieth century. The first volume of her autobiography , that came out in 1994, won her the James Tait Black Memorial prize. It charted her life beginning with her childhood in Africa and ending with her arrival in London in 1949. The second volume, ‘Walking In The Shade’, was an account of her life from 1949-62. Her biographies are a rare insight into a rebel mind and recount her life with exceptional accuracy.
Meanwhile, Love Again(1996), Ben In The World(2000), and The Grandmothers(2003) kept the fiction mills churning.
In 1996, she was short listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature and Britain’s Writer’s Guild Award for Fiction, and for Man Booker Prize in 2005. She was made the Companion of Honour by the British government in 1999 and received the David Cohen British Literature Prize in 2001. She was finally awarded the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. ‘On Not Winning The Nobel’, her Nobel lecture, drew attention to the global inequality of opportunity and examined the changing attitudes to story-telling and literature. Although she complained that the media attention post the Nobel has left her with no time for writing, she’s not finished yet. The Cleft(2007), and Alfred and Emily(2008) are a testimony to that. The literary fraternity looks up to this colossal author, and with a powerhouse of experience and her unique innate perceptive ability, it may not be surprised to see more gems added to her repertoire.
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