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Doris Lessing was a radical, in the truest sense

Lessing: “intellectually uncompromising”. Juan Martin/AAP

The writer and critic Margaret Drabble recently made an observation that I think is representative of the diverse and prolific career of the British author Doris Lessing, who died last night at 94:

She made her own place. She didn’t like categories. She didn’t even recognise them.

It is a sentiment about which Lessing herself left her readers and critics in little doubt. During an interview on National Public Radio in 1984, Lessing was called to account for her move into the realm of science-fictional writing. She was asked:

Do you have some sense of what the role of the writer should be? Is it to show us the world as it is, or the world as it should be, or the world as it might be?

Lessing retorted:

Why do you make it “or, or, or”? It could be “and, and, and”.

Born the year after the first world war ended, two years after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and plunged that country into civil war, and decades before the colonial system in which she grew up would finally crumble, Lessing lived through the second world war, the Cold War, and myriad other conflicts of every type and size.

Exiled African independence leaders dined in her London flat throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1980s, she travelled through Afghanistan to uncover and record the ravages of successive waves of conflict there. And she was born in what would become Iran, a country that now finds itself in the crosshairs of international tensions.

Lessing’s early novels were written during a transitional stage in contemporary British and postcolonial literatures, and in the germinal years of what might now be generally referred to as the era of postmodern literature.

Oliver Berg/EPA

She left school in what was then Southern Rhodesia in her early teens and educated herself with the impromptu library of books she cobbled together by order from Britain. She wrote The Golden Notebook at the end of the 1950s as a post-war immigrant to London, and she has always occupied something of an in-between position – not only culturally and politically, but also in the literary milieu of her contemporaries.

Perhaps it is for that reason she continued to occupy an uncomfortable place in a genealogy of that period: she was a late modernist, an early postmodernist, a social realist, a Marxist, a Jungian, a Sufi, a science-fictionalist – among many other things.

A subtle political and intellectual evolution

Lessing’s near-infamous discomfort with being characterised as a feminist writer stemmed from a combination of motivations, but she was particularly uncomfortable with the reductive logic which seemed to follow from such a characterisation – namely, that that must be all she was. Her occasionally blunt articulation of this discomfort, along with her move away from the psychological and social realism of The Golden Notebook, led to her being seen in some quarters as a former fellow-traveller who had strayed from the path.

What is lost in this view of Lessing as an ideological turncoat, however, is an understanding of the subtle character of her political and intellectual evolution. To generalise, it is less the case that she disavowed her earlier politics than that she saw so many ideologies of emancipation turned into dogmas.


Early readers of The Golden Notebook were by no means wrong in recognising Lessing’s prescient and provocative diagnosis of what she referred to (albeit wryly) as “the sex war”. What the novel’s later preface suggests is that Lessing found the critical and popular emphasis on this issue to the exclusion of all others profoundly irritating.

She regarded the novel’s multiple threads as wholly intertwined and constitutive of one another, as facets of the broader theme of the individual who is both defined by and resistant to her relation to a social whole. Lessing was disillusioned with Marxism in theory and practice by the 1960s, yet continued to value that propensity to “look at things as a whole and in relation to each other” which she attributed to the Marxist readers of The Golden Notebook in her preface.

Beyond categories

To my mind this vision of a “whole” as constituted by and embracing fragmentation, breakdown, opposition and dissent, rather than requiring its resolution, was Lessing’s response to codification of all kinds – political, social, sexual, creative, intellectual, formal, generic.

The diversity of Lessing’s oeuvre goes hand in hand with the impossibility – and I would argue the futility – of trying to categorise her.

A recent collection of scholarly essays on her work was titled Border Crossings, in reference to her seemingly endless capacity for moving between spaces, genres, forms and modes of thinking. What is important to emphasise is that in crossing borders Lessing did not leave what she had experienced or thought behind; rather, she constantly moved back and forth across borders, displaying an adaptive historical consciousness which was vital to the whole body of her fiction.

In a letter to the famous British historian and commentator E. P. Thompson, written in 1957 and published in the second volume of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade, Lessing expressed the belief that it was in her fiction writing that she would find whatever contingent, provisional knowledge was possible. She encouraged her correspondent, a long-time friend and sometime antagonist, to investigate his own beliefs and the character of his knowledge, through the act of writing, saying:

I suspect you of being an artist, in which case you ought to be finding out what you think by writing it … I don’t want to make any more concepts. For myself, I mean. I want to let myself simmer into some sort of knowledge, but I don’t know what it is … I want to write a lot of books.

Richard Lewis/EPA

I think that the knowledge Lessing allowed herself to “simmer into” will only appear that much more prescient, that much more profound, when her legacy is viewed in hindsight.

She was a postmodernist before postmodernism, a post-communist before the fall of the Iron Curtain, and perhaps both more and less of a feminist than she has often been seen to be. She was without doubt a radical, in the truest sense: intellectually uncompromising, absolutely individual, always striving with the boundaries of her form and the intellectual climate of her age.

How lucky we are that she did indeed go on to “write a lot of books”.

This article is adapted from an essay published in the Sydney Review of Books.

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