Doris Lessing - Nobel Laureate in Literature 2007
Nobel Prize in Literature 2007
S. T. Dupont Golden PEN Award 2002
Premio Principe de Asturias 2001
David Cohen Prize 2001
Companion of Literature of the Royal Society of Literature 2000
Order of the Companions of Honour 1999
Premi Internacional Cataluyna 1999
Los Angeles Times Book Award 1995
James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1995
Premio Grinzane Cavour 1989
Premio Internazionale Mondello 1987
Palermo Prize 1987
W.H. Smith Literary Award 1986
Shakespeare-Preis der Alfred Toepfer Stiftung F.V.S 1982
Austrian State Prize for European Literature 1981
Prix Medicis etanger 1976
Somerset Maugham Award 1954
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Doris Lessing 1919 - 2013
It is with great sadness that I have learned that Doris Lessing, Nobel Laureate in Literature 2007 passed away yesterday, Sunday, November 17, 2013. She was 94 years old and had lived a long and illustrious life as a great English modern writer.
I remember discovering her writings in college and I was drawn to read several of her novels, not just the one for the modern literature class I was taking at the time. She had an unusual voice then, and continued to write different and sometimes disturbing novels, but always ones with a message to society about its ills.
She took on subjects of racism, mental illness, feminism, the human psyche in both men and women, higher planes of consciousness and science fiction. There was no difficult or unusual subject she would not take on as the subject of her novels.
Doris Lessing was a British novelist, poet, playwright, librettist, biographer and short story writer. Some of her most important novels that were also groundbreaking were:
- The Grass is Singing (1950)
- Children of Violence (1952-69) a sequence of five novels
- The Golden Notebook (1962)
- Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971)
- Canopas in Argos Archives (1979-83) collection of five novels
- The Good Terrorist (1985)
- The Fifth Child (1988)
Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007 and the Swedish Academy described her as "epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny."
She was the 11th woman and the oldest woman ever, at 88 years of age, to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
She was born, Doris May Tayler in Kermanshal, Persia, today known as Iran, in 1919. Her parents, both English and of British nationality, were Captain Alfred Tayler and Emily Maude McVeagh Tayler.
Her parents were living in Iran when she was born as her father was a clerk for the Imperial Bank of Persia. Later, the family moved to the colony of South Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) in 1925 so her father could farm corn and other plants on the 1000 acres of bush he had purchased.
Lessing's mother tried to live an Edwardian lifestyle in the rough African environment; however, the family was not wealthy and such a lifestyle was not feasible there. The farm was not always successful nor did it bring any wealth to the family. Lessing's mother ran a rigid and repressed household and Lessing has described her childhood with some pleasure amidst much pain.
Lessing was educated at the Dominican Convent High School, a Roman Catholic convent and all-girls school in Salisbury, South Rhodesia and further experienced repression here. She left school at fourteen and self-educated herself through reading from then on.
Lessing lead an extremely lonely existence, but was able to read some of the great authors: Dickens, Scott, Stevenson, Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, Stendhal, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
She left home at fifteen, mostly to escape her mother, and worked as a nursemaid for a family. Here her employer offered her reading material on politics and sociology. She also began writing fiction at this time. Lessing has said that unhappy childhoods seem to produce fiction writers.
In 1937, she moved to Salisbury to work as a telephone operator and continued writing. Here she also met and married her first husband, Frank Wisdom. They had two children but Lessing has said she felt trapped in a persona that she feared would destroy her as a wife and mother. She divorced Wisdom in 1943.
After the divorce, she became interested in the Left Book Club, a communist book club, where she found many like-minded people as herself. Here she met her second husband, Gottfried Lessing. They married shortly after she joined the group and had a son together, but that marriage, too, ended in divorce in 1949. She never married again.
Lessing has said of that marriage that she felt people cannot resist the currents of their time and in her writings has fought against societal imperatives of marriage and motherhood.
At this time, Lessing fled to London to pursue a writing career and her communist beliefs. She left two of her children with their father in southern Africa and only took one child with her, a daughter. Lessing believed that most people's lives stopped when they had children and hence the reason for leaving two children in Africa.
At the time, she thought it was the best decision for her and the children involved, but later came to regret the decision in not bringing all three children with her to London.
While in London, she became disillusioned with the communist movement and began moving away from its beliefs.
In London, Lessing wrote her first novel, The Grass is Singing, which was published in 1950 and began her professional writing career.
In 1956 Lessing was banned from South Rhodesia because of her outspokenness and campaigning against nuclear weapons and arms and South African apartheid. She had exposed the sterility of white culture in South Africa and so was no longer welcome there.
Her breakout novel was her great work, The Golden Notebook, written in 1962. It was her narrative experiment in showing the multiple selves of a contemporary woman and she wrote and portrayed them in astonishing depth and detail.
The heroine, Anna Wulf tries to live the freedom of a man and is unfeminine in its portrayal of a female showing anger and aggression.
In 1982, Lessing attempted to publish two novels under a pseudonym, Jane Somers, to illustrate how difficult it was for new authors to get published. The two novels were rejected by UK publishers. They were later accepted by English publisher Michael Joseph and accepted also by the U.S. publisher Alfred A. Knopf.
Hence, The Diary of a Good Neighbor was published in England and the U.S in 1983 under the name Jane Somers. Also published under this pseudonym was If the Old Could published again in both countries in 1984.
In 1984, both novels were re-published in both countries under one cover titled, The Diaries of Jane Somers: The Diary of a Good Neighbor and If the Old Could, with her real name, Doris Lessing as the author.
Lessing was offered a damehood by Queen Elizabeth but declined the honor. She did accept an appointment as a Companion Honour in 1999 for "conspicuous national service."
She was also made and accepted a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature.
When she found out she had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Lessing was quoted as saying, "Oh Christ! I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I'm delighted to win them all. It's a royal flush."
When she gave her Nobel lecture in Stockholm, Sweden, it was used to draw attention to global inequality of opportunity and to explore the changing attitudes to story telling and literature.
Doris Lessing's writings and novels contain much autobiographical information and much of it comes from her childhood and experiences of living in Africa. Much of it includes her childhood memories and political and social concerns of Africa, the world and man in general.
Lessing's fiction can be divided into three categories:
- Communist themes (1944-1956) in which she wrote radically on social issues
- Physchological themes (1956-1969)
- Sufi themes (1969-2013)\
The last two categories reflect her science fiction and 'inner space' fiction as she described it.
Her first novel, The Grass is Spring and the first four novels of The Children of Violence as well as her collection of short stories, African Stories are all set in South Rhodesia, Africa. It is with these novels and stories that she sheds light on the racism inherent in South Africa.
Her next sequence of novels, Canopus in Argos, is science fiction and was not popular with the mainstream literary critics. However, Lessing felt this series of novels were her most important because they presented an advanced interstellar society and its efforts to accelerate the evolution of other worlds in the universe, including Earth.
I have read three of Lessing's fiction novels and I offer these as examples of her writing style, motifs and important themes she was trying to impart on the world through her unusual writing voice. I consider her novels to be 'way out there,' but the themes and messages are so important that she must be read.
Lessing's breakout novel that proved she was a serious writer to be considered was, The Golden Notebook (1962) and was Lessing's longest and most ambitious book. This was also considered Lessing's feminist classic by some scholars and literary critics. But, Lessing never wanted to be labeled a feminist. She wanted no labels attached to her or her writings. That was her point in all her writings.
In this novel the theme of mental breakdown is looked at as a means of healing and freeing one's self from illusions built up over time. This novel was her attempt to break certain forms of consciousness and go beyond them. She wanted to show that the mind could at the same time hold beliefs and ideas that were contradictory.
She was always disappointed that literary critics wanted to label her as a feminist author. She felt that too confining and constraining. She felt that feminists wanted her to make oversimplified statements about men and women which she refused to do.
Lessing, in her writings, was always searching for a better society and Earth on which to pin her hopes of actually achieving that one day. Around this point in her life and writing, Lessing's writings turned to a Sufi theme.
Idries Shah was her sufi teacher of mysticism and this theme shows up in her writings and works including her fiction, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and Memoirs of a Survivor (1974).
The themes stress that individual liberation comes only if the individual understands their own fates and the fate of society. These novels deal with cosmic fantasies and other dimensions and through science fiction probe higher planes of existence.
In her novel, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Lessing describes this novel as 'inner space fiction.' It is a marvelous, terrifying and unexplored territory of the inner man. The main character is Professor Charles Watkins who takes exotic, fantastic and entertaining trips in his mind which are in reality a mental breakdown.
The doctors try to subdue his wild mind's adventures that Watkins reconstructs by those who have known him: forgotten women who have loved him and a wartime colleague around whom he builds an astonishing fantasy.
Through these two novels. Lessing portrays that society's treatment of the mentally ill to be civilizations' biggest and blackest blind spot. She tells us that it is through the minds of the broken-down that the truths we choose to shut out enter our psyches liked messengers in myths and fairy tales. Those with mental breakdowns really tell all of us us about our flaws as human beings and the flaws in our society in general.
Instead of running from these human beings we should be embracing them because their flaws represent the flaws in all of us within society.
In The Fifth Child (1988) we have the chilling tale of a perfect, loving family torn apart by the birth of a fifth child.
It is the tragic fiction story of Harriet and Dave Lovatt, who have created a loving family filled with love, fidelity and family life. They have four children; two boys and two girls and the six of them live in loving harmony. They live in a rambling Victorian house and all is so idyllic that they are the envy of their family and friends.
That lovely family harmony is broken when the couple decide to have a fifth child. As soon as Harriet is pregnant, the problems begin. The baby moves too early and too violently in uteri. She has a difficult and painful birth. Then the infant develops faster and grows much bigger than ordinary infants.
The fifth child is not a loving child and instinctively is disliked by his four brothers and sisters. This child causes so many fights and problems within the Lovatt family that their idyllic and happy home and family is torn apart and destroyed.
The mother, Harriet, struggles to love and care for this fifth child and finally struggles to control her feelings of hate toward the child. How can she hate her own child? But, Harriet does. She finally concludes and realizes that there is a dark, sub-continent of human nature in the child and she is unable to cope with him. She has even harbored thoughts of killing him.
The fifth child is finally removed from the family and institutionalized, but the former family harmony and love is all gone, never to be seen or experienced again.
Lessing shines a light into areas as humans and individuals we would rather not see or have illuminated. She bravely shows us areas of society and ourselves that we would rather not hear about and writes about them and forces us to see the dark, cruel, and unrelenting flaws in ourselves and our society. She does this on a global level.
Lessing not only wrote novels, but several plays, Play with a Tiger and Other Plays, and in 1997 she collaborated with Philip Glass to write a libretto for the opera, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five. The opera had its premiere in Heidelberg, Germany.
She wrote her last and final novel, Alfred and Emily, in 2008, and said the increased media attention she drew because of her Nobel Prize left her without time and energy for writing. She acknowledged that this would be her last novel.
She died this past Sunday in her London home.
Interview with Doris Lessing 2007
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