This morning I have been sitting feeling sad as I read the tributes coming in for the great Zimbabwean writer Doris Lessing who died yesterday in London at the age of 94.
When I was growing up, Lessing’s work was banned in Zimbabwe and South Africa. You couldn’t find the Golden Notebook in bookshops or libraries and nobody admitted to reading it. A teacher gave it to me and told me to keep it out of sight. She also warned me that it wasn’t a ‘proper novel’ and didn’t make sense and I should think of it as a kind of experiment. I began reading and the world looked very different all of a sudden.
Her life might have been similar to the lives lived in a remote British colony in Africa by my own mother and her mother before her. Doris Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919 but grew up in what was then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Her father who had lost a leg in World War I, bought a farm in Africa in 1925 and tried to grow maize. The farm was not a success: there were droughts, locusts, floods, poor financial management. Lessing and her mother had a difficult relationship that would never get easier. But the young girl got an education, all the same.
Lessing from her Nobel prize lecture:
I was brought up in what was virtually a mud hut, thatched. This kind of house has been built always, everywhere there are reeds or grass, suitable mud, poles for walls. Saxon England for example. The one I was brought up in had four rooms, one beside another, and it was full of books. Not only did my parents take books from England to Africa, but my mother ordered books by post from England for her children. Books arrived in great brown paper parcels, and they were the joy of my young life. A mud hut, but full of books.
Even today I get letters from people living in a village that might not have electricity or running water, just like our family in our elongated mud hut. “I shall be a writer too,” they say, “because I’ve the same kind of house you lived in.”
But here is the difficulty, no?
Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books.
There is the gap. There is the difficulty.
Doris Lessing received some rudimentary education at a Catholic convent but left school at 14 to work as a nursemaid. Her employer gave her books on politics and sociology and she began writing, alone, teaching herself how to put her own thoughts down on paper. Trusting her own voice in the absence of a reader. Working it out for herself with unflinching courage and determination.
She married in 1937 and had two children, divorced in 1943. She became a Communist and married Gottfried Lessing, had another child. She divorced Lessing in 1949 and emigrated to London, abandoning her two children from her first marriage. She wrote about this with a matter-of-fact honesty that still shocks us.
“For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing. There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn’t the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother.”
Her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was published to acclaim in 1950. Her work was banned in her home country. In 1962 she wrote The Golden Notebook.
A woman named Anna Wulf who feels her life is cracking up and fragmenting keeps four notebooks — black, red, yellow and blue — in which she records the different conflicting aspects of her life: her politics, her madness, her affairs with men, her dreams and fiction. At the end of the novel she will begin a new Golden Notebook in which she is able to write it all down together, leaving nothing out, no longer keeping the different selves apart.
Lessing from The Golden Notebook:
“Do you know what people really want? Everyone, I mean. Everybody in the world is thinking: I wish there was just one other person I could really talk to, who could really understand me, who’d be kind to me. That’s what people really want, if they’re telling the truth.”
British writer Margaret Drabble on the impact of the novel:
Here was a writer who said the unsayable, thought the unthinkable, and fearlessly put it down there, in all its raw emotional and intellectual chaos. She managed to make sense of her material, but at enormous risk.
And Margaret Atwood in today’s Guardian:
She was political in the most basic sense, recognising the manifestations of power in its many forms. She was spiritual as well, exploring the limits and pitfalls that came with being human, especially after she became an adherent of Sufism. As a writer she was inventive and brave, branching out into science fiction in her Canopus In Argos series at a time when it was a dodgy thing for a “mainline” novelist to do. She was also very down-to-earth, having famously remarked “Oh Christ!” when informed in 2007 that she had won the Nobel prize. She was only the eleventh woman to do so, and never expected it; a lack of expectation that was in itself a kind of artistic freedom, for if you don’t think of yourself as an august personage, you don’t have to behave yourself. You can still kick up your heels and push the limits, and that was what interested Doris Lessing, always.
An iconoclast from a small country in Africa, taking on the world.
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.