Sunday, November 17, 2013

Remembering Doris Lessing, 1919-2013

It might be said of Doris Lessing, as Walt Whitman boasted of himself: I am vast, I contain multitudes. For many, Lessing was a revolutionary feminist voice in 20th-century literature – though she resisted such categorization, quite vehemently. For many others, Lessing was a 'space fiction' prophet, using the devices and idioms of the fantastic to address human issues of evolution and the environment. And for other readers, Lessing was a writer willing to explore 'interior worlds,' the mysterious life of the spiritual self.

Quoted in Maev Kennedy's article "Doris Lessing Dies Aged 94"
The Guardian
November 17, 2013

Even in very old age she was always intellectually restless, reinventing herself, curious about the changing world around us, always completely inspirational.

– Nicholas Pearson
Quoted in Danica Kirka's article "Legendary Author Doris Lessing Dead at 94"
Associated Press via Huffington Post
November 17, 2013

If there were a Mount Rushmore of 20th-century authors, Doris Lessing would most certainly be carved upon it. Like Adrienne Rich, she was pivotal, situated at the moment when the gates of the gender disparity castle were giving way, and women were faced with increased freedoms and choices, as well as increased challenges.

She was political in the most basic sense, recognizing the manifestations of power in its many forms. She was spiritual as well, exploring the limits and pitfalls that came with being human, especially after she became an adherent of Sufism. As a writer she was inventive and brave, branching out into science fiction in her Canopus In Argos series at a time when it was a dodgy thing for a "mainline" novelist to do. She was also very down-to-earth, having famously remarked "Oh Christ!" when informed in 2007 that she had won the Nobel prize. She was only the eleventh woman to do so, and never expected it; a lack of expectation that was in itself a kind of artistic freedom, for if you don't think of yourself as an august personage, you don't have to behave yourself. You can still kick up your heels and push the limits, and that was what interested Doris Lessing, always.

Bids for popularity were not Doris Lessing’s thing. Of course, in many ways that made her more appealing. You might call her misunderstood, or reappropriated, or simply taken to heart — in any case she was popular in ways she never meant to be. Take her best known work, The Golden Notebook, which Margaret Drabble described as “a novel of shocking power and blistering honesty”. Its most striking formal aspect — the several notebooks of its make-up — and attendant suggestion that writers (or all human beings) are divided selves, was largely ignored in favour of its much more controversially intimate aspect. In a later preface to the book, Lessing wrote that it had been “instantly belittled as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war”.

Well, yes – though it wasn’t belittling. Lessing wrote about women’s ambivalence about motherhood and sex and work in a way that was simultaneously shocking and influential. If she rejected the feminist label it was perhaps because she had no need for it. If others gave it to her it was perhaps because they needed her. It’s often said that what we think of as the Fifties and Sixties are more cultural concepts than chronological ones, and that the Sixties as we now think of them didn’t begin until well into that decade.

The Golden Notebook, which was published in 1962 — in other words, the Fifties — was not only ahead of its time but a blueprint for women in times to come. As Lessing herself put it, it was written “as though the attitudes that have been created by the Women’s Liberation movements already existed”.

Lessing was able to do a great deal for women without subscribing to feminism; she did it with her life, and with (not just within) her writing.

– Gaby Wood
Excerpted from "Doris Lessing: A Woman Ahead of Her Time"
The Telegraph
November 17, 2013

Doris Lessing was an intellectual giant. Of this I am sure because what I really admired about her was her no-holds-barred honesty. She didn’t care about glamor or recognition. She seemed to care about articulating the hidden realities of our lives, the intuited but unspoken truths.

– Ellen Rocco
Excerpted from "Doris Lessing and Me"
Readers and Writers Book Club
November 18, 2013

I will remember Doris Lessing as a great person and a great writer. . . . She wrote about everything [and] this was the great thing about her. . . . She was very curious about everything that happened . . . [and] was not afraid about what people would say. She was not that interested in the reception of her novels; she didn't write them to please or to make a lot of money. She wrote with a great integrity and also with a great kind of morality. [Her novels] were almost parables. [Her greatest achievement] was writing so many books for so long and maintaining her interest and her concern for humanity, her sense of the sweep of history, and her ability to place human beings in it. She was just the most remarkable writer and we won't see her like again.

Fay Weldon
Quoted in the BBC News story "Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize-winning Author,
Dies Aged 94
November 17, 2013

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
Doris Lessing Among The Guardian's "Top 100 Women".
The Sufi Way
Doris Lessing on the Challenge to Go Beyond Ideological Slogans
As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible

Related Off-site Links:
Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize-winning Author, Dies Aged 94 – Nick Higham (BBC News, November 17, 2013).
Doris Lessing, Author Who Swept Aside Convention, is Dead at 94 – Helen T. Verongos (New York Times, November 17, 2013).
Doris Lessing Reveled in Her Status As a Contrarian – David L. Ulin (Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2013).
"Doris Lessing Helped Change the Way Women are Perceived, and Perceive Themselves" – Lisa Allardice (The Guardian, November 17, 2013).
How Writer Doris Lessing Didn't Want to Be Remembered – Vicki Barker (National Public Radio, November 17, 2013).
Doris Lessing: Her Last Telegraph Interview – April 2008 – Nigil Farndale (The Telegraph, November 17, 2013).
Doris Lessing: The Sufi Connection – Müge Galin (Open Democracy, October 12 2007 and reprinted November 17, 2013).
Doris Lessing: In Her Own Words – Sameer Rahim (The Telegraph, November 17, 2013).
Doris Lessing: A Retrospective

Image: John Downing.

1 comment:

Paula said...

Thanks for the Doris Lessing memorials, Michael. A spectacular self.