I was filled with such a dangerous delicious intoxication that I could have walked straight off the steps into the air, climbing on the strength of my own drunkenness into the stars. And the intoxication, as I knew even then, was the recklessness of infinite possibility. – Doris in The Golden Notebook
Though writer Doris Lessing illuminated some of life’s most arcane ambiguities, the woman herself remains elusive. She would want it this way. She would likely have loathed being called charming, yet colleagues considered her warm and unfailingly generous. Though The Golden Notebook is a seminal literary contribution to women’s lib, Lessing balked at attempts to hail her as a feminist icon. She spent her life slipping beyond the boundaries of what was expected of her. Lessing died at the age of 94 on November 11, 2013, and the vast swathe of tributes illustrates how the world still can’t quite put its finger on her.
Doris May Taylor was born in 1919 to British parents and raised in Zimbabwe. Her father had been crippled by shrapnel during The Great War and met her mother, a military nurse, while recovering from his leg amputation. Their residual suffering weighed Lessing down with a “monstrous legacy” that she often wrote about. Lessing left school at 13, home at 15, and by 19 had married her first husband. By 1949, she was twice divorced with three children and moved to London to live out some of the scenarios fictionalized in The Golden Notebook.
The Golden Notebook has been called one of the 20th century’s most complex novels. But don’t even think of calling it a feminist masterpiece. Lessing saw herself not as a modifier of society, but an observer of its effect on individuals. The Golden Notebook follows writer Anna Wulf, who records her multiple selves in four notebooks (red, black, yellow, blue) and, threatened with insanity, tries to unify the fragmentations of the books into one golden notebook.
If you’ve already read it, don’t worry. Lessing also wrote plays, essays, cat stories, poetry, libretti, and over 50 books ranging from science fiction to politics. The perhaps lesser-known In Pursuit of the English is a piquant mocumentary about a cast of factual London characters in a working-class boarding house, through which Lessing portrays the robust spectrum of everyday life and lambastes British snobbery. Her 1950 debut novel, The Grass is Singing, describes Africa with a palpability of someone who has felt its soil with her own fingertips. Her final book, Alfred and Emily, experiments with what her parents would have been like had they married better and been happier, which would of course mean that Lessing herself wouldn’t exist to ask such a question. Read these. Try to conceptualize the scope of Doris Lessing, which of course you will fail at.
Perhaps the only classification tenacious enough to stick to Lessing is Outsider. She left home and quit school. She was self-taught – Harvard University awarded her an honorary degree in 2005. She divorced and supported herself. She wrote about apartheid and was banned from Africa. She wrote in experimental styles about previously unmentionable topics. You may agree with Lessing’s life and writing, or you may not. You may adore her snarky attitude and pithy prose, or scoff at her disregard for her Nobel Prize or for leaving her two oldest children behind in South Africa. Either way, there’s no denying that Doris Lessing made a mark on the world and how we articulate the inner life of the self. And, though she would likely loathe my using this as a point of argument: she has a stack of major awards and an adoring public to prove it.
Images via UVic Archives