Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Doris Lessing Among The Guardian's "Top 100 Women"

Lisa Allardice has written an appreciation of one of my favorite authors, Doris Lessing, as part of a special International Women's Day "Top 100 Women" feature in The Guardian newspaper. It's a fair enough piece, although I don't think Allardice fully grasps Lessing's disdain for the excessive and dehumanizing traits of any form of ideology – not just feminism. Also, I was disappointed that no mention was made of her interest in Sufism (something I've explored here). That being said, I appreciate the fact that Doris Lessing has been included in The Guardian's list of "Top 100 Women." Following, with added links, is Allardice's piece on Lessing.


Doris Lessing

Nobel prize-winning novelist, celebrated for writing
a pioneering work of female emancipation

On its publication in 1962, The Golden Notebook was celebrated and reviled as a pioneering work of female emancipation. Yet, for its author it was an "albatross", misunderstood by both its critics and admirers, and Doris Lessing was to spend half a century trying to shake off the mantle of "feminist icon," often gleefully baiting the sisterhood – "some of the smuggest, most un-self-critical people the world has ever seen" – with outspoken comments about biological determinism and women needing "real men."

When she was finally awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2007 at the age of 87, much was made of the fact that she was only the 11th female winner in the then 104 years of the prize's history. Lessing herself was characteristically dismissive: "I hate talking about literature in terms of men and women," she said. "It isn't helpful."

With more than 50 books in almost every genre to her name, Lessing is undoubtedly one of the most important writers of the second half of the 20th century – J.M. Coetzee called her "one of the great visionary novelists of our time" while A. S. Byatt described her as "one of the few prophets of literature". And while she may have spent 50 years denying she is a feminist, for 50 years women [and men!] have adored her.

After an unhappy childhood in Rhodesia, she left for England at 30 with two marriages behind her and the manuscript of her first novel The Grass is Singing, tackling the racial injustice of the country she was leaving, in her suitcase. Of her three children, she took only her youngest Peter, forever refusing to make public avowals of remorse, claiming she would have had a breakdown or become an alcoholic had she stayed in South Africa.

In her work, as in her life, Lessing was unafraid of experimentation and radical departures; her early, largely autobiographical, social realist novels making way for her science-fiction Canopus series, of which she was personally the most proud.

Her restless intellect made her an ideal, if highly subjective, chronicler of turbulent times, taking her reader through post-colonialism, communism, feminism (albeit unwittingly) and finally mysticism. She represents freedom and courage – not for women to "be themselves", as today's self-help books would have it, but to change themselves; hers is the liberation of reinvention. Feminist icon or not, she is an inspiration. When she was the guest at the Guardian Review book club she was greeted with a standing ovation, and women of varying ages in the audience testified that The Golden Notebook had changed their lives, one reader going so far as to say the novel had saved her life.

Asked what she considered her greatest achievement, Lessing replied: "I've met girls who say: 'My mother told me to read you, and my grandmother.' That really is something, isn't it."

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
My Travels with Doris
In the Garden of Spirituality – Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature

Recommended Off-site Link:
Doris Lessing's Road to the Nobel
– Lev Grossman (Time, October 11, 2007).

Image 1: Jane Brown.
Image 2:
Kieran Doherty.

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