Doris Lessing, Nobel-winning writer, dies at 94


British novelist Doris Lessing poses with her Nobel Prize for Literature at the Wallace Collection in 2008. (TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)
November 17, 2013

Doris Lessing, a Nobel Prize-winning novelist and essayist whose deeply autobiographical books and piercing social commentary made her one of the most significant and wide-ranging writers since World War II, died Nov. 17 at her home in London. She was 94.

Her publisher, HarperCollins, announced the death, but did not disclose the cause.

Ms. Lessing’s literary reach touched on relationships between men and women, racism, colonialism, feminism, communism, aging and terrorism. A perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, she won the coveted award in 2007.

The Nobel committeedescribed her as an “epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.”

Controversial, contentious and an autodidact, Ms. Lessing drew deeply from her childhood and youth growing up on a farm in Southern Rhodesia, where she first became aware of deep racial injustices, the struggle between cultures of native Africans and white immigrants, and the timeless conflict between the demands of the individual conscience and the good of society.

Her debut novel, “The Grass Is Singing” (1950), examined the tragic relationship between two Africans, a white farmer’s wife and her black servant, and a study of unbridgeable racial conflicts. That, in addition to her outspoken criticism of racial injustice and apartheid in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, prompted those places to ban her for 30 years.

She wrote more than 50 books, as well as many short stories, essays and plays, before publishing her final book, “Alfred and Emily” (2008), which both imagines and explores the lives of her parents.

Her most ambitious and most discussed novel was “The Golden Notebook” (1962), in which she considers relationships between the sexes through a complex narrative, revealing how political and emotional conflicts are intertwined. The protagonist, a modern female writer who tries to live as freely as a man, keeps four color-coded notebooks in which she reviews her experiences, reflects on her political life, writes a novel and pens a personal diary, bringing all four together into a golden notebook.

Feminists claimed her as one of their own, but Ms. Lessing, although acknowledging society’s oppression of women and an underlying feminist philosophy, said readers were missing her main theme about freedom and the rights of the individual.

Her fans were aghast in the 1980s when she turned from psychological novels to science fiction, but the author dismissed such concerns. “I see inner space and outer space as reflections of each other,” she declared.

Doris May Taylor was born Oct. 22, 1919, in Kermanshah, Persia, in what is now Iran. She was the daughter of a nurse and an English banker maimed in World War I, and she moved with her family in 1925 to a farm in Southern Rhodesia, now part of Zimbabwe, where her parents hoped to make their fortune. It was not to be.

In the first volume of her autobiography, “Under My Skin” (1994), she wrote of her parents: “There they are, together, stuck together, held there by poverty and — much worse — secret and inadmissible needs that come from deep in their two so different histories. They seem to me intolerable, pathetic, unbearable, it is their helplessness that I can’t bear. . . . Meaning, never let yourself be trapped. In other words, I was rejecting the human condition, which is to be trapped by circumstances.”

Dropping out of school at age 14, she began a lifetime of self-education by reading major 19th-century Russian, French and English novels.

At odds with her mother, she left home as a teenager to work as a nursemaid, then a telephone operator. An early marriage to Frank Charles Wisdom in 1939 ended within four years; she left him and their two children because she said she felt trapped by the traditional role of housewife and mother.

The Left Book Club, a group of Communist literati, energized her. She met a German refugee, Gottfried Lessing, whom she married in 1945. That marriage ended four years later, after the birth of a son. She took that son and left Africa in 1949 for London. The following year, her first novel was published.

Leaving Africa and moving to England on her own, she told the BBC, was “very painful, but I could not stand that society. You have no idea of the awfulness of it. I was going completely mad, and I wouldn’t have stuck it so I knew I had to leave. . . . It wasn’t the children I was leaving; it was that. . . . No one who hasn’t lived in one of these colonies knows just how stultifying they are.”

She didn’t join the Communist Party until the 1950s and soon came to regret her membership, calling it “the most neurotic act of my life.” She left the party within a few years after experiencing the rigidity of its true believers, a topic she revisited in 1987.

“We are seeing now an example of the price a society must pay for insisting on orthodox, simple-minded, slogan thinking: the Soviet Union is a creaking, anachronistic, inefficient, barbaric society, because its type of Communism outlaws flexibility of thought,” she wrote that year. “In the long term, I think the race will go to the democracies, the flexible societies. . . . Looking back now, I no longer see these enormous blocs, nations, movements, systems, faiths, religions, but only individuals. . . . [I]t is individuals who change society, give birth to ideas, who, standing out against tides of opinion, change them.”

In London as an impoverished single mother, she indulged in numerous disastrous love affairs, plunged into the city’s intellectual circles and forged her reputation as a novelist. She engaged in leftist demonstrations and politics, and met many future world leaders, including a young Henry Kissinger, who wanted to speak with a “left-winger,” she said.

They argued, but he left with her respect for his willingness to engage “the enemy,” she told Salon magazine in 1997. She also had a warm visit with feminist Betty Friedan and an amusing encounter with Allen Ginsberg and other Beat poets.

“They turned up in London, a whole lot of them, and I went to meet them,” she recalled to the Associated Press’s Hillel Italie in 2006. “I thought they were extremely likable, but this isn’t how they wanted to be seen. I thought then, and I think I was right, that they weren’t as frightening and as shocking as they wanted to be. They were mostly middle-class people trying to be annoying.”

The racial, social and economic injustice of her formative years in Southern Rhodesia informed her work throughout her life. She also wrote about the Afghan mujahideen in “The Wind Blows Away Our Words” (1987), felines in “Particularly Cats” (1967) and outer space in the five-volume “Canopus in Argos: Archives.” She was impatient with those who scoffed at science fiction, noting that it informed millions of people in the basics of science.

“Ideas do not stay shut in neat boxes. They spread themselves about, leap walls, transfer themselves from mind to mind, sometimes one does not know how. We are all the creatures of science,” she said in the Guardian in 1991.

“Whatever her subject, Lessing is a surefooted and convincing storyteller,” wrote Mark Mathabane in The Washington Post’s Book World in 1993. “Her work possesses a universality, range and depth matched by that of few writers in our time.”

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.