Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing dies at 94


Doris Lessing, the Nobel prize-winning, free-thinking,
world-traveling and often-polarizing author of “The Golden Notebook” and
dozens of other novels that reflected her own improbable journey across
the former British empire, died Sunday. She was

Her publisher, HarperCollins, said the author of more than 55 works
of fiction, opera, nonfiction and poetry, died peacefully early Sunday.
Her family requested privacy, and the exact cause of death was not
immediately clear.

Lessing explored topics ranging from colonial Africa to dystopian
Britain, from the mystery of being female to the unknown worlds of
science fiction.

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She won the Nobel Literature prize in 2007. The Swedish Academy
praised Lessing for her “skepticism, fire and visionary power.” When
informed about winning the prize outside her London home she responded:
“Oh Christ! … I couldn’t care less.”

That was typical of the irascible, independent Lessing, who never
saved her fire for the page. The targets of her vocal ire in recent
years included former President George W. Bush — “a world calamity” —
and modern women — “smug, self-righteous.” She also raised hackles by
deeming the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States “not that

She remains best known for “The Golden Notebook,” in which heroine
Anna Wulf uses four notebooks to bring together the separate parts of
her disintegrating life.  The novel covers a range of previously
unmentionable female conditions — menstruation, orgasms and frigidity
— and made Lessing an icon for women’s liberation. But it became so
widely talked about and dissected that she later referred to it as a
“failure” and “an albatross.”

Published in Britain in 1962, the book did not make it to France or
Germany for 14 years because it was considered too inflammatory. When it
was republished in China in 1993, 80,000 copies sold out in two days.

“It took realism apart from the inside,” said Lorna Sage, an academic
who knew Lessing since the 1970s. “Lessing threw over the conventions
she grew up in to stage a kind of breakdown — to celebrate
disintegration as the representative experience of a generation — when
what you should have been doing is getting the act together.”

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For some readers and critics, however, the book was an unwelcome exposure of female failings.
The criticism of Lessing’s work continued throughout her life.
Although she continued to publish at least every other year, she
received little attention for her later works and was often criticized
as didactic and impenetrable.
“This is pure political correctness,” American literary critic Harold
Bloom said in 2007 after Lessing won the Nobel Prize. “Although Ms.
Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable
qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable …
fourth-rate science fiction.”

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While Lessing defended her turn to science fiction as a way to
explore “social fiction,” she, too, was dismissive of the Nobel honor.
After emerging from a London black cab, groceries in hand, she was asked
repeatedly whether she was excited about the award.
“I can’t say I’m overwhelmed with surprise,” Lessing said. “I’m 88
years old and they can’t give the Nobel to someone who’s dead, so I
think they were probably thinking they’d probably better give it to me
now before I’ve popped off.”

As the international media surrounded her in her garden, she
brightened when a reporter asked whether the Nobel would generate
interest in her work.
“I’m very pleased if I get some new readers,” she said. “Yes, that’s very nice, I hadn’t thought of that.”
Born Doris May Tayler on Oct. 22, 1919, in Persia (now Iran) where
her father was a bank manager, Lessing moved to Southern Rhodesia (now
Zimbabwe) aged 5 and lived there until she was 29.

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Strong-willed from the start, she read works by Charles Dickens and
Rudyard Kipling by age 10 and lived by the motto of “I will not.”
Educated at a Roman Catholic girls school in Salisbury (now Harare), she
left before finishing high school.

At 19, she married her first husband, Frank Wisdom, with whom she had
a son and a daughter. She abandoned that family in her early 20s and
became drawn into the Left Book Club, a group of literary communists and
socialists headed by Gottfried Lessing, the man who would become her
second husband and father her third child.

But Lessing became disillusioned with the communist movement and in
1949, aged 30, left her second husband to move to Britain. Along with
her young son, Peter, she packed the manuscript of her first novel, “The
Grass is Singing.” The novel, which used the story of a woman trapped
in a loveless marriage to portray poverty and racism in Southern
Rhodesia, was published in 1950 to great success in Europe and the
United States.

Lessing then embarked on the first of five deeply autobiographical
novels — from “Martha Quest” to “The Four-Gated City” — works that
became her “Children of Violence” series.
Her nonfiction work ranged from “Going Home” in 1957 about her return
to Southern Rhodesia to a book about her pets, “Particularly Cats,” in

In the 1950s, Lessing became an honorary member of writers’ group
known as the Angry Young Men who were seen as injecting a radical new
energy into British culture. Her home in London became a center not only
for novelists, playwrights and critics but also for drifters and
Lessing herself always denied being a feminist and said she was not
conscious of writing anything particularly inflammatory when she
produced “The Golden Notebook.”

“I had been listening to women talk about women’s issues and about
men. Suddenly when I wrote down these private conversations, people were
astounded. It was as though what women said didn’t exist until it was
written,” she said.

Lessing’s early novels decried the dispossession of black Africans by
white colonials and criticized South Africa’s apartheid system,
prompting the governments of Southern Rhodesia and South Africa to bar
her in 1956. Later governments overturned that order. In June 1995, the
same year that she received an honorary degree from Harvard University,
she returned to South Africa to see her daughter and grandchildren.

In Britain, Lessing won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1954 and was
made a Companion of Honor in 1999. That honor came after she turned down
the chance to become a Dame of the British Empire — on the grounds
that there was no such thing as the British Empire at the time.
Lessing often presented women — herself included — as vain and
territorial and insisted in the introduction for a 1993 reissue that
“The Golden Notebook” was not a “trumpet for women’s liberation.”

“I think a lot of romanticizing has gone on with the women’s
movement,” she told The Associated Press in a 2006 interview. “Whatever
type of behavior women are coming up with, it’s claimed as a victory for
feminism — doesn’t matter how bad it is. We don’t seem go in very much
for self-criticism.”
In 2001, she told the Edinburgh book festival that modern men were “cowed” by women.
“They can’t fight back,” she said. “And it’s time they did.”
She is survived by her daughter Jean and granddaughters Anna and Susannah.


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