The Herald-Doris Lessing, the only Nobel prize winner with connections to Zimbabwe, and author of “The Golden Notebook” and “The Grass is Singing”, among more than 50 other novels ranging from political to science fiction, has died at her London home aged 94.Doris Lessing (born Doris Tayler) was born in Iran but grew up and lived in Zimbabwe for around a quarter century in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s after her parents (Alfred and Emily Tayler) started farming near Banket.
Her entire formal education was at Avondale Infants School (very briefly) and the Harare Dominican Convent.
Both her marriages, to Frank Wisdom and Gottfried Lessing, were in Harare and all three of her children were born in this country.
At the age of 30 she left with her youngest child for London and lived there until she died. Her left-wing and anti-settler views ensured that she was banned from the then Rhodesia and South Africa until after the settler regime collapsed with Zimbabwe’s independence and apartheid was destroyed, although she managed one trip to Central Africa in the middle 1950s and visited Zimbabwe several times after independence.
While few of her works have any specific mention of where the author grew up, her experiences of settler society, and reaction against that society, in her formative years certainly clarified her thoughts on many social issues.
The biographer Michael Holroyd, her friend and executor, called her contribution to literature “outstandingly rich and innovative”.
He said: “Her themes have been universal and international. They ranged from the problems of post-colonial Africa to the politics of nuclear power, the emergence of a new woman’s voice and the spiritual dimensions of 20th-century civilisation. Few writers have as broad a range of subject and sympathy.
“She is one of those rare writers whose work crosses frontiers, and her impressively large output constitutes a chronicle of our time. She has enlarged the territory both of the novel and of our consciousness.”
Nick Pearson, her editor at Harper-Collins/4th Estate, said : “I adored her.”
He added: “When I took over looking after her books she had a fairly formidable reputation, and the first time I went to meet her I was terrified, but she was always completely charming to me.
She was always more interested in talking about the other writers on our list, what the young writers were working on — and reading — than in talking about her own books.”
Her last novel, although several earlier books have since been re-released as e-books, was “Albert and Emily”, in 2008.
Pearson said: “That was a very interesting book for her, revisiting the early life of her mother and her father and how they had been touched by the First World War. At the time she said to me ‘this is my last book’, and we accepted that. She was already at a great age, and I could see she was tired.”
The publisher’s UK chief executive, Charlie Redmayne, added: “Doris Lessing was one of the great writers of our age. She was a compelling storyteller with a fierce intellect and a warm heart who was not afraid to fight for what she believed in. It was an honour for
HarperCollins to publish her.”
Twitter reacted quickly to the news, a shock to many despite her great age. The author and critic Lisa Jardine described it as “a huge loss”, and the agent Carole Blake called her an “amazing writer and woman”. The writer Bidisha tweeted: “Doris Lessing: prolific multi-genre genius dies in sleep after writing world-changing novels and winning Nobel. Not bad at all.”
Born in Iran, brought up in Zimbabwe — where her 1950 first novel, “The Grass Is Singing”, was set — Lessing had been a London resident for more than half a century. In 2007 she travelled back to West Hampstead, north London, by taxi, carrying heavy bags of shopping, to find the doorstep besieged by reporters and camera crews. “Oh Christ,” she said, on learning that their excitement was because at 88 she had just become the oldest author to win the Nobel prize in literature. Only the 11th woman to win the honour, she had beaten that year’s favourite, the American author Philip Roth.
Pausing rather crossly on her front path, she said “one can get more excited”, and went on to observe that since she had already won all the other prizes in Europe, this was “a royal flush”.
Later she remarked: “I’m 88 years old and they can’t give the Nobel to someone who’s dead, so I think they were probably thinking
they’d probably better give it to me now before I’ve popped off.”
Pearson, her editor at the time of the award, recalled the doorstep moment vividly: “That was what she was like. That was vintage Doris.”
The citation from the Swedish Academy called her “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”.
Her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook was described as “a feminist bible”, and her fellow laureate J M Coetzee called her “one of the great visionary novelists of our time”.