Doris Lessing’s career, like that of Mario Capecchi, another 2007 Nobel Laureate, shows that a strict pattern of formal schooling is not the only way to success. Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran), to British parents, but her family moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in hope of a better future. However, that future never really materialized and Lessing’s childhood was difficult. She ended formal schooling at fourteen, largely educating herself through voracious reading, and left home at fifteen. A lifelong critic of colonialism and racism, she eventually moved to London in 1949.
Given that Lessing has many points of origin, it is perhaps not surprising that she can create such an intense sense of place in her writing. She has written over fifty books, starting with The Grass is Singing, set in Africa, and her output includes novels, short stories, a graphic novel, plays, non-fiction, and two operas with Philip Glass. Possible starting points for readers unfamiliar with her work might be the Martha Quest-series of novels and Time Bites, a collection of essays published in 2004. In the 1980s, she published two novels under the pseudonym, Jane Somers, to prove just how difficult it is for an unknown name to get their work published. Both novels were rejected by Lessing’s usual publisher!
Lessing has said that writing enables her to take something that is raw and unexamined and give it general significance. Her writing is clearly in the tradition of Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the writers she read as a teenager, with its strong ethical focus and engagement with society. Indeed, perhaps her most famous novel, The Golden Notebook, a dissection of a woman’s psyche which is torn between emotional, social and creative demands, has been very influential on feminism.
Writing, Lessing says, also gives her freedom – a freedom revealed in her willingness to probe conventions, to give voice to the repressed, dismissed, and inarticulate, but also displayed in her willingness to experiment. She has mixed high literature with more popular forms, like science fiction, and has daringly employed strange combinations of time-schemes, perspective, allegory, and naturalism in an attempt to access what she sees as the deeper reality of mysticism, dreams and even madness. Describing her perspective on her own life as constantly changing, Lessing always remains open to new ideas and possibilities.
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