"This world is run by people who know how to do things. They know how things work. They are equipped. Up there, there's a layer of people who run everything. But we - we're just peasants. We don't understand what's going on, and we can't do anything." -- Doris Lessing
Doris May Lessing CH (née Tayler; born 22 October 1919) is a British writer, author of works such as the novels The Grass is Singing and The Golden Notebook.
In 2007, Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was described by the Swedish Academy as "that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny". Lessing was the eleventh woman and the oldest person ever to win the Literature Prize.
In 2001, Lessing was awarded the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in British Literature. In 2008, The Times ranked her fifth on a list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".
"A simple grateful thought turned heavenwards is the most perfect prayer.""Any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so.""Borrowing is not much better than begging; just as lending with interest is not much better than stealing.""For the last third of life there remains only work. It alone is always stimulating, rejuvenating, exciting and satisfying.""I don't know much about creative writing programs. But they're not telling the truth if they don't teach, one, that writing is hard work, and, two, that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer.""If a fish is the movement of water embodied, given shape, then cat is a diagram and pattern of subtle air.""In the writing process, the more a story cooks, the better.""In university they don't tell you that the greater part of the law is learning to tolerate fools.""It is terrible to destroy a person's picture of himself in the interests of truth or some other abstraction.""It is the mark of great people to treat trifles as trifles and important matters as important.""Literature is analysis after the event.""Man, who is he? Too bad, to be the work of God: Too good for the work of chance!""Pearls mean tears.""Pleasure resorts are like film stars and royalty... embarrassed by the figures they cut in the fantasies of people who have never met them.""Small things amuse small minds.""Some people obtain fame, others deserve it.""Space or science fiction has become a dialect for our time.""That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way.""The great secret that all old people share is that you really haven't changed in seventy or eighty years. Your body changes, but you don't change at all. And that, of course, causes great confusion.""There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.""There is only one real sin and that is to persuade oneself that the second best is anything but second best.""Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself.""Trust no friend without faults, and love a woman, but no angel.""We use our parents like recurring dreams, to be entered into when needed.""What is a hero without love for mankind.""What's terrible is to pretend that second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don't need love when you do; or you like your work when you know quite well you're capable of better.""With a library you are free, not confined by temporary political climates. It is the most democratic of institutions because no one - but no one at all - can tell you what to read and when and how.""You can't be a Red if you're married to a civil servant."
Lessing was born in Iran, then known as Persia, on 22 October 1919, to Captain Alfred Tayler and Emily Maude Tayler (née McVeagh), who were both English and of British nationality. Her father, who had lost a leg during his service in World War I, met his future wife, a nurse, at the Royal Free Hospital where he was recovering from his amputation.
Alfred Tayler and his wife moved to Kermanshah, Iran, in order to take up a job as a clerk for the Imperial Bank of Persia and it was here that Doris was born in 1919. The family then moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1925 to farm maize, when her father purchased around one thousand acres of bush. Lessing's motherattempted to lead an Edwardian life style amidst the rough environment, which would have been easy had the family been wealthy; it was not. The farm was not successful and failed to deliver the wealth the Taylers had expected.
Lessing was educated at the Dominican Convent High School, a Roman Catholic convent all-girls school in Salisbury (now Harare). Lessing left school aged 14, and thereafter was self-educated. She left home at 15 and worked as a nursemaid, and it was around this time that Lessing started reading material on politics and sociology that her employer gave her to read. She began writing around this time. In 1937, Lessing moved to Salisbury to work as a telephone operator, and she soon married her first husband, Frank Wisdom, with whom she had two children, before the marriage ended in 1943.
Following her divorce, Lessing was drawn to the Left Book Club, a communist book club, and it was here that she met her second husband, Gottfried Lessing. They were married shortly after she joined the group and had a child together, before the marriage also ended in divorce in 1949. Gottfried Lessing later became the East German ambassador to Uganda, and was murdered in the 1979 rebellion against Idi Amin Dada.
When she fled to London to pursue her writing career and communist ideals, she left two toddlers with their father in South Africa (another, from her second marriage, went with her). She later said that at the time she thought she had no choice: "For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing. There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn't the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother."
Because of her campaigning against nuclear arms and South African apartheid, Lessing was banned from that country and from Rhodesia for many years. Lessing moved to London with her youngest son in 1949 and it was at this time her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, was published. Her breakthrough work though, was The Golden Notebook, written in 1962.
In 1984, she attempted to publish two novels under a pseudonym, Jane Somers, to demonstrate the difficulty new authors faced in trying to break into print. The novels were declined by Lessing's UK publisher, but accepted by another English publisher, Michael Joseph, and in the US by Alfred A. Knopf.
She declined a damehood, but accepted appointment as a Companion of Honour at the end of 1999 for "conspicuous national service". She has also been made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature.
On 11 October 2007, Lessing was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was 87, making her the oldest winner of the literature prize at the time of the award and the third oldest Nobel Laureate in any category. She also stands as only the eleventh woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature by the Swedish Academy in its 106-year history. Lessing was out shopping for groceries when the announcement came, arriving home to tell reporters who had gathered there, "Oh Christ...I couldn't care less”. She sarcastically told reporters outside her home "I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I'm delighted to win them all. It's a royal flush." She titled her Nobel Lecture On Not Winning the Nobel Prize and used it to draw attention to global inequality of opportunity, and to explore changing attitudes to storytelling and literature. The lecture was later published in a limited edition to raise money for children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. In a 2008 interview for the BBC's Front Row, she stated that increased media interest following the award had left her without time for writing.
's fiction is commonly divided into three distinct phases: the Communist theme (1944—1956), when she was writing radically on social issues (to which she returned in The Good Terrorist ), the psychological theme (1956—1969), and after that the Sufi theme, which was explored in the Canopus in Argos sequence of science fiction (or as she preferred to put it "space fiction") novels and novellas.
Lessing's Canopus sequence was not popular with many mainstream literary critics. For example, in the New York Times in 1982 John Leonard wrote in reference to The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 that "[o]ne of the many sins for which the 20th century will be held accountable is that it has discouraged Mrs. Lessing... She now propagandizes on behalf of our insignificance in the cosmic razzmatazz." To which Lessing replied: "What they didn't realize was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time. I also admire the classic sort of science fiction, like Blood Music, by Greg Bear. He's a great writer." Unlike some authors primarily known for their mainstream work, she has never hesitated to admit that she wrote science fiction and attended the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention as its Writer Guest of Honor. Here she made and made a well-received speech in which she described her dystopian novel Memoirs of a Survivor as "an attempt at an autobiography."
When asked about which of her books she considers most important, Lessing chose the Canopus in Argos sequence. The sequences present from many different perspectives, an advanced interstellar society's efforts at the forced evolution (also see eugenics) of other worlds, including Earth. (Similar concepts occur in science fiction by other authors, e.g. the Progressor and Uplift sequences.) The Canopus series is based partly on Sufi concepts, to which Lessing had been introduced in the mid-1960s by her "good friend and teacher" Idries Shah. It also owes much to the approach employed by the early 20th century mystic G. I. Gurdjieff in his work All and Everything. Earlier works of "inner space" fiction like Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) also connect to this theme. Lessing's interest had turned to Sufism after coming to the realization that Marxism ignored spiritual matters, leaving her disillusioned.
Lessing's novel The Golden Notebook is considered a feminist classic by some scholars, but notably not by the author herself, who later wrote that its theme of mental breakdowns as a means of healing and freeing one's self from illusions had been overlooked by critics. She also regretted that critics failed to appreciate the exceptional structure of the novel. As she explains in Walking in the Shade, Lessing modelled Molly, to an extent, on her good friend Joan Rodker, the daughter of the author and publisher John Rodker.
Lessing does not like the idea of being pigeonholed as a feminist author. When asked why, she explained:
Lessing's largest literary archive is held by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, at the University of Texas at Austin. The 45 archival boxes of Lessing's materials at the Ransom Center represent nearly all of her extant manuscripts and typescripts through 1999. Original material for Lessing's early books is assumed not to exist because Lessing kept none of her early manuscripts. Other institutions, such as McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa hold smaller collections.