One of the most important writers of the 20th century, Doris Lessing wrote over 70 works, covering a huge range of themes and styles, including three novels that were nominated for a Booker Prize. Here, we select some of her best writing
Throughout May, we’re celebrating Doris Lessing and her 1985 shortlisted work, The Good Terrorist, which is our latest Book of the Month. But this one novel is a mere fragment of an extraordinary body of work from the author, which spanned around 70 titles across a writing career of nearly 80 years. Lessing was a Nobel Prize winner, was nominated for both the Booker Prize and International Booker Prize on multiple occasions, and is arguably one of the most important writers of the last century.
Lessing was always an expansive writer, in both form and content, and constantly pushed the novel over the edge of convention. She was unafraid to explore subject matter that might be considered taboo, or that was frowned upon by serious literary critics or that seemed unworthy of a writer of her stature. Yet, she was, at times, pigeonholed by readers and critics alike throughout her long career. In an interview with The New York Times, Lessing said: ‘I’ve been stereotyped differently at different times. I can’t remember them all… when my first books came out I was called a writer about race problems, then I was described as a political writer about communism, then a women’s writer, then a mystic writer.’ It seems that the urge to categorise and order runs against Lessing’s skills as a writer. She was searching for a way of writing fiction that would permit her to go wherever her capacious imagination led her.
In her novels, we have a record of a boundaryless mind surveying all in its wake. But where to begin with such a writer? Whether you’re familiar with Lessing’s work and would like to know what to pick up next, or are new to her legacy and would like to know where to start, here is a walk-through of the best of her career.
Doris Lessing was born after the First World War, in 1919, in what is now present-day Iran. Her father was injured in the war, which traumatised both her parents. In an interview with TIME magazine, Lessing recalled that upon returning to England her father detested the small scale of his surroundings and bought land in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Lessing grew up in Southern Rhodesia under British colonial rule, before moving permanently to England in 1949. Later, when she tried to return to Southern Africa, she was denied entry by government officials on the basis of her communist politics.
Lessing wrote prolifically on Africa and was a vocal critic of colonial society and apartheid, beginning with The Grass is Singing (1950), her first book on colonial Africa. The novel follows Mary Turner’s hasty and ill-advised marriage to a useless farmer in Southern Rhodesia her relationship with a Black servant called Moses and her consequential undoing. Lessing also wrote many short stories set in Southern Africa that were collected into three books: This Was the Old Chief’s Country (1952), The Black Madonna (1966) and Winter in July (1966).
Inner space fiction
Lessing began her writing career working in the Marxist-realist tradition, which is typified by its belief in the close relationship between politics and aesthetic concerns. Later on, her interest in Sufism, a mystic body of Islamic religious practice, led to work that fused her penchant for capturing social realities and the psychic struggle of the individual and collective with a mystical dimension. These works have been termed ‘inner space fiction’. ‘I see inner and outer space as reflections of each other. I don’t see them as in opposition. Just as we are investigating subatomic particles and the outer limits of the planetary system – the large and the small simultaneously – so the inner and the outer are connected,’ Lessing said. In this vein, she wrote Briefing for a Descent into Hell, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971. It’s a novel about the life of Professor Charles Watkins of Cambridge - a ‘mad’ man who is placed in a mental hospital where doctors ply him with various drugs intended to bring him back to normalcy. But he is far away, spinning on a raft in the Atlantic before he is carried off into outer space.
Another example of Lessing’s inner space fiction is the classic The Golden Notebook (1962), the account of the fragmented consciousness of British women after World War II. Lessing viewed this novel as ‘an attempt to break a form; to break certain forms of consciousness and go beyond them’. While writing, she said, ‘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. Using form to break through the divide of inner and outer form.’
Lessing is a distinguished chronicler of the vagaries of motherhood and is known for leaving her two children in South Africa when she moved to England, in order to pursue her intellectual life. Her decision to prioritise her vocation over parenting has been both celebrated and vigorously critiqued. Regardless of whether you agree with her decision or not, Lessing’s iconoclastic ideas on motherhood have produced outstanding literature. She looks at the divided heart of the mother in The Fifth Child (1988), a story of conventional couple Harriet and David Lovatt who seek a safe, benign family life in their large Victorian house.
The couple love their children but within their fifth child, Ben, there seems to be something monstrous. During early pregnancy, the baby moves inside Harriet too early, too violently. His birth is traumatic and he grows faster than ordinary infants. He is unable to develop close bonds with his siblings and instead acts out, causing harm. Throughout the novel he is presented as a grave danger to the family. Harriet faces a difficult and impossible choice: to protect her family or keep her son. Lessing’s fictional construction of motherhood suggests an irreconcilable division in the consciousness of the mother.
Man and woman
Lessing was fascinated by gender dynamics in society, which changed dramatically from the period of her early writing in the 1940s to the time of her death in 2013, and it’s these changes and tensions she recorded throughout her work. Her 1973 novel The Summer Before the Dark tells the story of Kate Brown, a ‘pretty, healthy, serviceable’ housewife. Kate becomes disillusioned by the docile role she occupies in her life when her children leave home and her husband has one too many affairs. She starts work as a translator for an international conference, changes her hair and embarks on an affair. But when Kate gets sick, she spends a week in a hotel in a fever that causes her to dislodge from family life. From then on, she wanders the streets in ill-fitting clothes and discovers she is now unattractive to men. In The Summer Before the Dark, Lessing unravelled the performance of beauty as a stipulation in womanhood, and shows what happens when a woman refuses to conform.
The first in her series of Canopus in Argos sci-fi novels; 1979’s Shikasta, is about a fallen paradise, a planet of the same name separated from the march of civilisation that has brought prosperity and development. Johor, an emissary from the region, travels to Rohonda and finds it with too little ‘Spirit of We Feeling’: a world which has turned to greed, war and destruction. As the five-volume series progresses, it charts the struggles between Canopus and its rivals over the fate of the universe. It was Lessing’s third book in the collection, The Sirian Experiments, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981. Here, we watch as Earth continues to evolve under manipulation by advanced extra-terrestrial civilisations.
Many critics dissaproved of Lessing’s science fiction turn, but she remained unabashed, arguing that ‘science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time’. Those who wish to follow Lessing’s journey into outer space will enjoy the Canopus in Argos: Archives, which features all five novels in the sequence.