Jacob Silkstone on one of the greatest writers of the twentieth-century.
In the aftermath of Doris Lessingâ€™s death, aged 94, hundreds of articles (including, against my better judgement, this one) will attempt to summarise her writing life. But perhaps the most admirable of Lessingâ€™s many qualities was her ability to resist the easy summary, to be â€” in the words of the Guardianâ€™s Lisa Allardice â€” â€˜a professional contrarian.â€™
Near the peak of her fame, Lessing submitted two novels to her British publisher Â (Jonathan Cape) under the pseudonym Jane Somers in order to â€˜highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that â€˜nothing succeeds like successâ€™â€™; sure enough, both novels were rejected. After the success of â€˜The Golden Notebookâ€™, perhaps her greatest novel, she baffled critics seeking to pigeonhole her as a feminist writer by devoting several years of her writing career to the five-volume â€˜Canopus in Argosâ€™ sci-fi series. She later wrote the libretto for a â€˜space operaâ€™ based on the Canopus books, with music by Philip Glass. Her reaction to being told sheâ€™d won the Nobel Prize was a muttered â€˜Oh, Christâ€¦Â Itâ€™s been going on now for 30 years. One canâ€™t get more excited,â€™ and her Nobel lecture was entitled â€˜On not winning the Nobel Prize.â€™
Lessing was born in modern-day Iran and grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); she adopted the surname of her second husband, Gottfried Lessing, who was murdered by Tanzanian troops in Uganda â€˜while supporting, in accordance with official policy [Gottfried Lessing was the East German ambassador], Idi Amin.â€™
John Leonard described her as â€˜one of the half-dozen most interesting minds to have chosen to write fiction in English in this [the twentieth] century.â€™ She believed passionately that â€˜a writerâ€™s job is to provoke questionsâ€™; she occasionally went further and provoked anger, or at least disbelieving irritation from readers who had thought they understood her. â€˜What I really canâ€™t stand about the feminist revolution,â€™ she once said, â€˜is that it produced some of the smuggest, most unselfcritical people the world has ever seen. They are horrible.â€™
Janna/Jane Somers, the protagonist of Lessingâ€™s two pseudonymous novels (eventually combined as â€˜The Diaries of Jane Somersâ€™), somnambulates through years of her professional life as one of those unselfcritical products of the feminist revolution: a â€˜child-womanâ€™ (as Lessing described one of the models for the character) who helps edit an Ã la mode magazine called Lilith. The editorial staff of Lilith hold earnest and ultimately meaningless debates about whether the magazineâ€™s name is outdated and needs replacing with something like Martha (â€˜more workaday, less of an incitement to envyâ€™, and perhaps a sly nod to an earlier Lessing novel, ‘Martha Quest’). Reflecting on a talented younger editor, Jane observes that â€˜she can fit words together, interview anyone, she has a mind like scissors, she never panicsâ€¦ Does she understand how things really work? What do I mean by that? A great deal. Everything.â€™
Jane discovers a little more about how things really work as she grows closer to the elderly Maudie Fowler: on first encountering Maudie at a chemistâ€™s shop, Jane sees only â€˜a witchâ€™, but â€” partly motivated by guilt at her near-absence during the final months of her motherâ€™s life, leaving her sister to take the role of carer â€” forges a connection with Maudie. Maudie comes to depend on Jane (who bathes her, cleans her house, provides a semblance of company), but Jane is also dependent on Maudie, who offers a window into a world beyond that of the Lilith editors (trendy, metropolitan, soulless).
The book, without Lessingâ€™s name on the cover, came out to â€˜sour nasty little reviewsâ€™, but is a moving meditation on ageing, and on the potential strength of connections between apparently dissimilar people.
Although her personal life was sometimes tumultuous (Lisa Allardiceâ€™s Guardian interview has Lessing, twice-divorced, reflecting that marriage â€˜is not one of my talentsâ€™), Lessingâ€™s work is clear-sighted, passionate, and profound. The young writer â€˜intensely committed toâ€¦ reform[ing] societyâ€™, the creator of Anna Wulf, and the older â€˜professional contrarianâ€™ whose interest in Sufism opened a new angle on the world, who was deeply sceptical of being â€˜close to the literary machineâ€™, are connected by a desire to set people â€˜thinking in a slightly different way perhapsâ€™, and by a deep concern for others.
Perhaps the moment that should linger with viewers of Lessingâ€™s reaction to the Nobel Prize news is not the â€˜Oh, Christâ€¦â€™ but the moment, almost immediately after hearing the news, when Lessing turns away from the cameras to pay her taxi driver and say â€˜Thank you very much.â€™ In writing and in life, the people matter far more than the prizes.