Doris Lessing (RIP): Author, Visionary, Free Spirit

 

Doris Lessing, a literary lioness, died on the 17th of November (yesterday) at age 94. Known for her strong, independent female characters, she was branded a feminist — a term she wasn’t particularly fond of because it pigeonholed her as an author when she wrote about many other themes like racism, colonialism, independence, sex, etc.

She wasn’t perfect, having abandoned her marriage and children to pursue a free life, controversially speaking out about communism, 9/11, etc. But her fierce intelligence and her prolific authorial output won her many admirers among both her fellow writers and generations of readers.

As Margaret Atwood said, in a lovely tribute in The Guardian:

Wonderful Doris Lessing has died. You never expect such rock-solid features of the literary landscape to simply vanish. It’s a shock.

My own introduction to Lessing was through The Golden Notebook. Like many reading women in their 20s, I was advised of its seminal nature. I found it difficult at the time and went back to her first novel, The Grass is Singing, instead, which is still my all-time favorite of hers. After turning 40, though, I returned to the former and found a new sensibility with which to appreciate it better. As Lessing had noted in some interview:

…..remember that the book which bores you at 20 or 30 may open doors for you at 40 or 50 — and vice versa.

Of The Golden Notebook, Lessing said famously in an NPR interview:

It’s stupid. I mean, there’s nothing feminist about The Golden Notebook. The second line is: ‘As far as I can see, everything is cracking up.’ That is what The Golden Notebook is about.

She also said, in another NPR interview:

I have done quite a good job of documenting a lot of our time, I think. I mean, what is The Golden Notebook? It couldn’t be written now, could it? You know, looking at it objectively, I’ve written one or two good books.

Below are some interesting links.

In Her Own Words

— Her Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (also see quote from it at the end)

— Refusing the honor of the “Damehood” title in this letter

— This lyrical memoir piece in Granta about her beloved London home

Fiction that appeared in The New Yorker (some free, some only available to subscribers)

— An article in the London Review of Books where she highlighted the gaps in 19th century literary, novelistic fiction

— A collection of her best quotes by The Guardian

The Best Lessing Interviews

The Paris Review Interview

— The Guardian Books Podcast with interviews through the years

Her last interview with The Telegraph

NPR with Terry Gross on Fresh Air (excerpts)

Bookforum Interview

Opinions / Reviews on Her Works

— The Guardian on Lessing’s five best novels

— The Telegraph on Lessing’s writing and how she wanted to make the world a better place

— Ursula Le Guin in the New Republic on Lessing’s foray into science fiction

— The Guardian again on The Golden Notebook, 50 years on as viewed by other famous authors

— (Added Nov 22, 2013) the lovely Margaret Drabble on Doris Lessing

Selected Obituaries

The New York Times

The Guardian

The BBC

The Telegraph

The Washington Post

The LA Times

— (Added Nov 22, 2013) n + 1

Let’s end with this quote from her Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (do read the entire speech – she related an interesting story right before this quote, which makes it more meaningful).

Ask any modern storyteller and they will say there is always a moment when they are touched with fire, with what we like to call inspiration, and this goes back and back to the beginning of our race, to the great winds that shaped us and our world.

 

The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us -for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

UPDATE April 12, 2014: A lovely essay by author, Jenny Diski, on what Doris Lessing meant to her.

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