This study examines the writing career of the respected and prolific novelist Doris Lessing, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 and who has recently published what she has announced will be her final novel. Whereas earlier assessments have focused on Lessing's relationship with feminism and the impact of her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook, this book argues that Lessing's writing was formed by her experiences of the colonial encounter. It makes use of postcolonial theory and criticism to examine Lessing's continued interest in ideas of nation, empire, gender and race, and the connections between them, looking at the entire range of her writing, including her most recent fiction and non-fiction, which have been comparatively neglected.
Doris Lessing's In Pursuit of the English (1960), based on her experiences on first arriving in England from Southern Rhodesia and trying to find somewhere to live, provides an excellent point of entry into the extensive body of her work. It also allows us to begin to understand some of the contexts and intertexts that have been important in her writing. Issues of exile and migration are at the centre of this text and her work as a whole, suggesting the importance, but also the instability, of identity. Lessing is interested in ideas about class, nation, ‘race’ and gender, but, more importantly, in the links between these concepts and in the ways they overlap with and merge into one another. The generic indeterminacy of In Pursuit brings to the fore Lessing's critical relation to the constraints of genre and her qualified suspicion of categories such as realism and experimentalism, fiction and autobiography. Her constructive and complex use of autobiographical material also creatively interacts with her interest in the writer or artist as both figure in and producer of the text.
Exile and nostalgia in the writing of Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing's key novels of the period 1945–1960 examine the years leading up to World War II and the early to middle years of the war itself. The umbrella title of the five-volume novel sequence is Children of Violence, which is indicative not only of Lessing's preoccupation with the war, but also of her wider analysis of its connection with the violence of the colonial encounter. Her novels in this period mark the tentative emergence of more plural, fluid notions about race and gender and the interconnections between them. A narrative voice that might almost be characterised as nostalgic for those aspects of the war which created an impulse for decolonisation is important in the novels of this period. The critical or creative nostalgia of the fiction can be instructively compared with the narrative perspective in Lessing's 1957 essay, Going Home, which details her first return to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) after an absence of eight years. Going Home situates ‘home’ as a wandering site of nostalgia, exile and alienation.
Doris Lessing's late twentieth-century fiction has often provoked and discomfited. Some readers of The Fifth Child (1988), its sequel Ben, in the World (2000) and Lessing's 1999 novel Mara and Dann were disturbed by her appropriation of racially marked stereotypes of the animal, the primitive and the atavistic. Such imagery has controversial implications in relation to ideas about ‘race’ and nation. Moreover, Lessing deploys what might be termed the ‘minor’ genres of urban gothic, picaresque and disaster narrative in her late twentieth-century work in unfamiliar and disturbing ways. In analysing Lessing's late twentieth-century ‘fabular’ fictions in relation to ideas about genre and ‘race’, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's discussion of ‘minor’ literature proves instructive. Deleuze and Guattari define minor literature as exhibiting three main characteristics: ‘the deterritorialisation of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation’. Thus, minor literature has a partial relation to nationality both linguistically and generically. Lessing's resistance to territoriality is the overriding concern of her 1987 collection of four short essays, Prisons we Choose to Live Inside.
Before she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, Doris Lessing's reputation (in the UK at least) was looking rather shaky. Many commentaries on the Nobel Prize focused on The Golden Notebook as Lessing's most important book and included comparatively little about the rest of her literary output in the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Feminist criticism of Lessing's work has, to some extent, followed a trajectory between what we might call gynocriticism and gynesis, even if many critics (feminist and otherwise) still fail to acknowledge the formal innovations of her writing. Gayle Greene's 1994 book, Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change was written some time after the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, but she begins by noting that Lessing's work presented ‘the malaise that produced the second wave of feminism…in political terms’. Lessing's recent writing has clearly concerned itself with the interesting intersections and overlaps between gender and class, sexuality, ‘race’, nation and age.
What must strike any reader of Doris Lessing's 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook, is the extent to which its protagonist, AnnaWulf, has been affected by the experience of loss. Anna's attempt to convince herself that her pain and that of other women like her represents ‘not much loss’ is belied by the experience of reading the entire novel and by Lessing's continuing preoccupation with the idea of loss in her later novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). This chapter explores how, in her work in the 1960s and the early 1970s, Lessing rewrites the experience of loss as potentially creative, productive and transformative. In her vision of what the chapter calls a ‘melancholy cosmopolitanism’, Lessing challenges the closed-off, paranoid legacy of the Cold War in the 1950s. In Memoirs and Briefing, she further develops the distinction between the claustrophobic, nostalgic relation to loss that is characteristic of mourning and the creative work of melancholia.
Working on the two volumes of her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997), must have heightened Doris Lessing's interest in the question of how to narrate the past. In Lessing's note to her 2001 novel, The Sweetest Dream, she explained that she was not writing a third volume of her autobiography ‘because of possible hurt to vulnerable people’. In her writing in this period, Lessing makes use of notions of city, home and memory, revising the notion of ‘home’ so that it becomes capable of both recognising racial and national differences and moving outside them. She also interprets memory as productive for the individual and the nation only when it becomes, as Toni Morrison would say, ‘rememory’: when it can acknowledge the importance of imagination in dealing with trauma and thus suggest the fluctuating, mobile status of identity. This chapter discusses Lessing's use of particular conceptions of the city and the home as a means of exploring connections between race, nation and identity.
In 1979, Doris Lessing published Shikasta, the first novel in her Canopus in Argos: Archives quintet (1979–1983) and her first novel written entirely in the speculative mode. Science fiction (SF) has always involved extrapolation, so in what ways is writing about new worlds a way of writing about our own? Does SF require a different voice or narration? If it does, how might that make a writer such as Lessing rethink her authorial and narrative voice when she returns to realism? How might it impact on her attempt to write about a subject like terrorism? In the Canopus in Argos: Archives series, and in The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984) and The Good Terrorist (1985), questions of voice are central. Lessing suggests here that style and voice cannot be separated from content, and that there is no such thing as a characteristic authorial style or voice. Her work in the early to mid-1980s, despite its apparently vast differences in mode, genre and subject, can be viewed as a self-conscious experimentation with the authority of voice.