HOPLEY: Remembering Doris Lessing

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Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing, who died Sunday at age 94, arrived in England in 1949 with the manuscript of a novel called “The Grass is Singing.” It’s about a lonely white woman living on an isolated African farm who falls in love with her black servant. It became an instant best-seller in England. Not so in South Africa or southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where it was set and where she had grown up. It was banned because she had attacked the social and racial status quo. That was typical of her. She was what the English call a stirrer: ready to mix things up — in the interests of reform, yes, but more importantly, to ferret out the hidden or revelatory. Having stirred once, she was ever ready to stir and stir again so she could experience new ideas and see where they led.

“One must have a vision to build towards,” she wrote in 1957, “And that vision must spring from the nature of the world we live in.” Describing the era as “dangerous, violent, explosive and precarious,” she moved on from the short, tightly focused “The Grass is Singing” to write a five-volume sequence called “The Children of Violence” that she glossed as being about “people like myself.” She aimed “to explain what it is like to be a human being in a century when you open your eyes on war and on human beings disliking other human beings.” Martha Quest, the central character, shares many of her creator’s experiences: growing up on an unprofitable Rhodesian farm with parents scarred by their service in World War I; leaving school at 14; working in the capital, Salisbury; meeting British soldiers; and becoming involved in politics.

The first four volumes of “The Children of Violence” are realistic — no surprise from an author who had asserted that “the realist novel, the realist story, is the highest form of prose writing.” Then she wrote “The Golden Notebook.” It describes a blocked writer who records her experiences in different notebooks because they are too disparate to capture in one notebook. A mental breakdown eventually helps her pull her life together. Mental breakdown as healing exemplifies Lessing’s enthusiasm for helpful new ideas.

“The Golden Notebook,” published in 1962, was another best-seller, with Anna Wulf, the main character, becoming a heroine of the burgeoning feminist movement. Lessing would have none of it. Did feminists really want “oversimplified statements about men and women?” she asked. Her book, she noted, was about so much more than women. “While writing it, I found I did not believe some of the things I thought I believed: or rather, that I hold in my mind at the same time beliefs and ideas that are apparently contradictory. Why not? We are, after all, living in the middle of a whirlwind.”

She moved on to try to mediate the whirlwind in futuristic novels such as the dystopian “Memoirs of a Survivor” and another sequence “Canopus in Argos” — space fiction this time — that explores the endemic belligerence of humans from a cosmic point of view. By this point, she had left her earlier Marxist commitment behind and was influenced by ideas about spirituality, especially Sufism.

She never entirely deserted realism, nor did she ever stop stirring ideas. A prolific writer of short stories as well as novels, she often explored destructive relationships or situations that pushed people onto the periphery of society. “The Fifth Child” (1988) is an unsettling example. An idyllically happy couple with four lovely children conceive a fifth, Ben. He is ugly, fast-growing, angry, violent, demanding and antisocial. Nobody can cope with him; the family is torn apart. The nice kids grow up and leave home, but Ben disappears into gangland. It’s an unsettling tale, forcing readers to ask for explanations. Lessing has some thoughts — perhaps an evolutionary throwback? — but she lets the tale stand as a parable of our unwillingness to confront the genesis of aggression.

Eventually, Doris Lessing wrote more than 50 novels, scores of short stories plus plays, poems, books about cats and an autobiography. Her final book, “Alfred and Emily” (2008), dissected her parents’ marriage. Still stirring, she suggests that each would have been more fulfilled had World War I not thrown them into an unsuccessful marriage.

Much earlier, in 1958, she had written, “We are not living in an exciting literary period, but in a dull one. We are not producing masterpieces, but large numbers of small, quite lively, intelligent novels.” She wrote lots of these herself. But she also produced exciting novels — dense, gripping and thought-provoking works about human nature and the turbulent 20th century. When she won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007, she called it “a royal flush” because she had won virtually every other literary prize in Europe. Deservedly.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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