On 22 October, it will be 100 years since the birth of Doris Lessing. That’s a good reason to revisit the work of the award winning British-Zimbabwean novelist here on the Reading group. In a career spanning more than 50 years, Lessing wrote dozens of works of fiction and biography, in many different genres and moods, and was shortlisted for – and won – most of the major literary awards in Europe. She won the Nobel prize in literature in 2007, when the Swedish Academy described her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”. The word “epicist” means “epic poet”, which possibly fits Lessing in the broader sense of the term, even if the poetry she wrote had a quieter impact than her novels.
At 88, Lessing was the oldest author to receive the honour. She was also one of the most nonplussed. “Oh Christ,” she said when a reporter on her doorstep told her she’d won. On further reflection she said: “I’m sure you’d like some uplifting remarks of some kind … It’s been going on now for 30 years, one can get more excited … I’ve won all the prizes in Europe – every bloody one. I’m delighted to have won them all. The whole lot.”
In 2007, Robert McCrum saluted her in the Observer as a writer “who has dedicated her long life and impressive body of work to the tireless and unflinching exploration of man’s (and woman’s) place in the world, together with issues of race, gender and social justice. This prize finally acknowledges what has been true for at least 40 years: that she is one of the most important literary voices of her generation.”
McCrum noted that her work was mainly read by people over the age of 35. Presumably, those readers are now over 47. It’s hard to tell how many younger readers have been picking her up since. I myself read The Grass Is Singing, first published in 1950, around the time of the Nobel announcement and promised to read “more Lessing”. It’s not just the appalling joke that makes me redden but that I haven’t read any of her books since. This is a good chance, for me anyway, to put that right and celebrate this astonishing writer.
The only question is which book to read. Her work includes furious takedowns of colonialism and apartheid, explorations of female inner space such as in The Golden Notebook and outer space in books like Canopus in Argos. Lessing poured scorn on the idea that she could be pigeonholed. She had been given “every conceivable label. I started off as a writer about the colour bar, and then I was a communist, then a feminist, then a mystic.’ And now? What I always was. Just the same.”
Her extensive bibliography may be one reason why her work so impressed the Nobel committee. Let’s take a vote and choose the book that is most often nominated in the comments below as this month’s Reading group choice. First a caution: an impressive number of those books remain in print, but not all of them. If you do want to choose one of the less famous novels, make sure it is widely available so as many people as possible can take part. As always, all other ideas and points for discussion are welcome.