Novelist Doris Lessing, who tackled race, ideology, gender politics and the workings of the psyche in a prolific and often iconoclastic career, has died at the age of 94, her publisher said on Sunday.
Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, only the 11th woman to do so. She died peacefully at her London home in the early hours of the morning, publisher HarperCollins said in a statement.
Born in what was then Persia, now Iran, on Oct. 22, 1919, Lessing was raised in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. She moved to Britain at the age of 30 with the manuscript of her first novel, “The Grass Is Singing”, about the relationship of a white farmer’s wife and her black servant. It was an immediate bestseller in Britain, Europe and America.
Her early stories and novellas set in Africa, published during the 1950s and early 1960s, decry the dispossession of black Africans by white colonials and expose the sterility of the white culture in southern Africa – work that earned her “prohibited alien” status in white-ruled Southern Rhodesia and South Africa.
Lessing wrote that, for her, Africa was “not a place to visit unless one chooses to be an exile ever afterwards from an inexplicable majestic silence lying just over the border of memory or of thought”.
But it was her 1962 novel “The Golden Notebook” that propelled her onto the international stage with its unconventional style and format, and linked her firmly to the feminist cause.
Its female heroine, Anna Wulf, is a writer caught in a personal and artistic crisis who sees her life compartmentalized into various roles.
The Swedish Academy said in its Nobel citation that it “belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship”.
But Lessing’s output also ranged much more widely. In some 55 novels and collections of short stories and essays, she focused on the role of the family and the individual in society and even ventured into science fiction. The four novels of “Canopus in Argos”, published between 1979 and 1983, provide a “space eye” view of human life by describing a colonised planet Earth used as a social laboratory by galactic empires.
In “The Good Terrorist” (1985), she returned to the political arena through the story of a group of political activists who set up a squat in London.
In 1987’s “The Wind Blows Away Our Words”, Lessing attacked what she saw as the West’s indifference to the war in Afghanistan. In it, she described a trip she made in 1986 to Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.
And a year later, “The Fifth Child”, the story of a mother’s rejection of her son, was concerned with alienation and the dangers inherent in a closed social group. Her recent work included “The Grandmothers” (2003), a collection of four short novels centred on an unconventional extended family, and “Time Bites” (2004), a selection of essays based on her life experiences. “The Cleft”, published in 2007, tells the story of an all-female community which has no need of men.
The novel “Alfred and Emily”, published in 2008, was only a partially fictionalised account of the lives of her parents. After receiving her Nobel award, Lessing said there was no higher accolade for a writer except, perhaps, “a pat on the head from the Pope”. But she never lost sight of her African roots. Lessing left school at 13, educating herself by reading Dickens, Tolstoy, D.H. Lawrence and Dostoyevsky but also living close to the land.
In “Walking in the Shade”, the second volume of her autobiography, she wrote that by the age of 14 she could “set a hen, look after chickens and rabbits, work dogs and cats, pan for gold, take samples from reefs, sew, use the milk separator and churn butter, make cream cheese and ginger beer, … drive the car, shoot pigeons and guineafowl for the pot, preserve eggs – and a lot else.
“Doing these things I was truly happy,” she wrote. “Few things in my life have given me greater pleasure.”REUTERS