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Kermanshah 22 Oct. 1919 • British novelist and story writer
photo: Eamonn McCabe
|Doris Lessing was born in Persia (present-day Iran) to British parents in 1919. Her family moved to Southern Africa where she spent her childhood on her father's farm in what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). When her second marriage ended in 1949, she moved to London, where her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was published in 1950. The book explores the complacency and shallowness of white colonial society in Southern Africa and established Lessing as a talented young novelist.
She is now widely regarded as one of the most important post-war writers in English. Her novels, short stories and essays have focused on a wide range of twentieth-century issues and concerns, from the politics of race that she confronted in her early novels set in Africa, to the politics of gender which lead to her adoption by the feminist movement, to the role of the family and the individual in society, explored in her space fiction of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The books in the 'Children of Violence' series (1952-69) are strongly influenced by Lessing's rejection of a domestic family role and her involvement with communism. The novels are autobiographical in many respects, telling the story of Martha Quest, a girl growing up in Africa who marries young despite her desperate desire to avoid the life her mother has led. The second book in the series, A Proper Marriage (1954), describes the unhappiness of the marriage and Martha's eventual rejection of it. The sequel, A Ripple from the Storm (1958), is very much a novel of ideas, exploring Marxism and Martha's increasing political awareness. By the time that this book was written, however, Lessing had become disillusioned with communism and had left the party.
With the publication of her next novel, The Golden Notebook (1962), Lessing became firmly identified with the feminist movement. The novel concerns Anna Wulf, a writer caught in a personal and artistic crisis, who sees her life compartmentalised into various roles - woman, lover, writer, political activist. Her diaries, written in different coloured notebooks, each correspond to a different part of herself. Anna eventually suffers a mental breakdown and it is only through this disintegration that she is able to discover a new 'wholeness' which she writes about in the final notebook.
The pressures of social conformity on the individual and mental breakdown under this pressure was something that Lessing returned to in her next two novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and The Summer Before the Dark (1973). Briefing for a Descent into Hell is about a man who is found wandering the streets of London with no memory of a 'normal' life, while Kate, the central character of The Summer Before the Dark, achieves a kind of enlightenment through what doctors would describe as a breakdown.
In the late 1970s and early
| 1980s Doris Lessing turned almost exclusively to writing fantasy and science fiction in the 'Canopus in Argos' series, developing ideas which she had touched on towards the end of 'Children of Violence' and in Briefing for a Descent into Hell. The first book in the series, Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta, was published in 1979. The fourth, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, was adapted by Philip Glass as an opera, with a libretto by the author.
She made a return to realist fiction with Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could ... (1984), sent to her publisher under the pseudonym Jane Somers. They were turned down for publication several times and when published had only small print runs and few reviews. When the truth was uncovered, the books were, of course, reprinted to much greater acclaim.
Lessing's more recent novels have continued to confront taboos and challenge preconceptions, generating many different and conflicting critical opinions. In The Good Terrorist (1985), Lessing returned to the political arena, through the story of a group of political activists who set up a squat in London. The book was awarded the WH Smith Literary Award. The Fifth Child (1988) is also concerned with alienation and the dangers inherent in a closed social group. Harriet and David react to the hedonism and excesses of the 1960s by setting themselves up in a large house and embarking on an enthusiastic programme of childbearing and domestic bliss. Their fifth child, however, emerges as a malevolent, troll-like and angry figure who quickly disrupts the family idyll.
The acclaimed first volume of her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994), won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for biography), and was followed by a second volume, Walking in the Shade: Volume II of My Autobiography 1949-1962 (1997).
Doris Lessing's recent fiction includes Ben, in the World (2000), a sequel to the The Fifth Child, and, The Sweetest Dream (2001), which follows the fortunes of a family through the twentieth century, set in London during the 1960s and contemporary Africa. She was made a Companion of Honour by the British Government in 1999, and is President of Booktrust, the educational charity that promotes books and reading. In 2001 she received the David Cohen British Literature Prize.
Doris Lessing lives in London. Her recent books include: the grandmothers (2003), a collection of four short novels centred on an unconventional extended family; and Time Bites (2004), a selection of essays based on her life experiences. Her latest book is Alfred and Emily (2008), which explores the lives of both her parents.
In 2007, Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. On Not Winning the Nobel Prize (2008) is the full text of the lecture she gave to the Swedish Academy when accepting the prize.
|BOOKS BY DORIS LESSING:|
Mara and Dann
Adventure story set in the future, after the next Ice Age. A brother and sister in the continent of Ifrik are heading North, trying to escape from drought and war.
|Story of Dann and Mara's daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog|
Sequel to Mara and Dann (1999). The earth's climate has changed – it is colder than ever before – and Dann, four in the first book, is now grown up and a general, and the man to whom everyone looks for guidance and leadership. The novel charts his adventures across the frozen wastes of the north, a journey that will eventually lead to the discovery of a secret library.
|ON DORIS LESSING'S BOOKSHELF|
The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, 1880
The Cherry Orchard
Anton Chekhov, 1904
|The Grass is Singing|
Set in Rhodesia, this is the story of Dick, a failed white farmer and his wife, Mary, dependent and disappointed. Both are trapped by poverty, and in the heat of the brick and tin house, hemmed in by the bush, Mary finds herself seeking solace in the arms of the houseboy.
|WHAT TO READ AFTER THE GRASS IS SINGING?|
ACROSS THE COLOR BAR
Occasion for Loving
Nadine Gordimer, 1963
Age of Iron
J.M. Coetzee, 1990
The Way of the Women
Marlene van Niekerk, 2004
The Human Stain
Philip Roth, 2000
BOOKS THAT CAUSED A COMMOTION
To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee, 1960
Empire of the Sun
J.G. Ballard, 1984
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston, 1937
The Sheltering Sky
Paul Bowles, 1949
DESCENT INTO MADNESS
The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath, 1963
Rivka Galchen, 2008
Simone de Beauvoir, 1954
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Ken Kesey, 1962
PIONEERS IN THE COLONIES
[De stille plantage]
Albert Helman, 1931
Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys, 1966
T.C. Boyle, 1987
Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe, 1958
|The Golden Notebook|
Anna Wulf is a young novelist with writer's block. Divorced, with a young child, and disillusioned by unsatisfactory relationships, she feels her life is falling apart. In fear of madness, she records her experiences in four colored notebooks.
|A Proper Marriage|
'Children of Violence', book 2
'Children of Violence', book 1
|A Ripple from the Storm|
'Children of Violence', book 3
|Briefing for a Descent into Hell|
A man is found wandering the streets of London with no memory of a 'normal' life.
|The Summer Before the Dark|
|Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta|
'Canopus in Argos', book 1
|The Making of the Representative for Planet 8|
'Canopus in Argos': archives, book 4
|The Diary of a Good Neighbour|
1983 (under pseudonym 'Jane Somers')
|If the Old Could...|
1984 (under pseudonym 'Jane Somers')
|The Good Terrorist|
|The Fifth Child|
|Under My Skin|
First volume of her autobiograhy, to 1949.
|Walking in the Shade|
Second volume of her autobiography, 1949-1962.
|Ben, in the World|
Sequel to The Fifth Child
|The Sweetest Dream|
4 short novels.
|Time Bites: Views and Reviews|
|Alfred and Emily|
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