Oct. 22, 1919 – Nov. 17, 2013
LONDON (AP) – Doris Lessing emerged from a black cab outside her home in London one day in 2007 and was confronted by a horde of reporters. When told she had won the Nobel Prize, she blinked and retorted “Oh Christ! … I couldn’t care less.”
That was typical of the independent – and often irascible – author who died Sunday after a long career that included “The Golden Notebook,” a 1962 novel than made her an icon of the women’s movement. Lessing’s books reflected her own improbable journey across the former British Empire, and later her vision of a future ravaged by atomic warfare.
The exact cause of Lessing’s death at her home in London was not immediately disclosed, and her family requested privacy. She was 94.
“Even in very old age she was always intellectually restless, reinventing herself, curious about the changing world around us, always completely inspirational,” her editor at HarperCollins, Nicholas Pearson, said in one of the many tributes.
Lessing explored topics ranging from colonial Africa to dystopian Britain, from the mystery of being female to the unknown worlds of science fiction. In winning the Nobel literature prize, the Swedish Academy praised Lessing for her “skepticism, fire and visionary power.”
She remains best known for “The Golden Notebook,” in which heroine Anna Wulf uses four notebooks to bring together the separate parts of her disintegrating life. The novel covers a range of previously unmentionable female conditions – menstruation, orgasms and frigidity – and made Lessing an icon for women’s liberation. But it became so widely talked about and dissected that she later referred to it as a “failure” and “an albatross.”
Published in Britain in 1962, the book did not make it to France or Germany for 14 years because it was considered too inflammatory. When it was republished in China in 1993, 80,000 copies sold out in two days.
Although she continued to publish at least one book every two years, she received little attention for her later works and was often criticized as didactic and impenetrable.
Lessing was 88 when she won the Nobel literature prize, making her the oldest recipient of the award.
After emerging from a London black cab, groceries in hand, that day in 2007, she said:
“I can’t say I’m overwhelmed with surprise,” Lessing said. “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.”
As the international media surrounded her in her garden, she brightened when a reporter asked whether the Nobel would generate interest in her work.
“I’m very pleased if I get some new readers,” she said. “Yes, that’s very nice, I hadn’t thought of that.”
Born Doris May Tayler on Oct. 22, 1919, in Persia (now Iran), where her father was a bank manager, Lessing moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) aged 5 and lived there until she was 29.
Strong-willed from the start, she read works by Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling by age 10 and lived by the motto, “I will not.” Educated at a Roman Catholic girls school in Salisbury (now Harare), she left before finishing high school.
At 19, she married her first husband, Frank Wisdom, with whom she had a son and a daughter. She left that family in her early 20s and became drawn into the Left Book Club, a group of literary communists and socialists headed by Gottfried Lessing, the man who would become her second husband and father her third child.
But Lessing became disillusioned with the communist movement and in 1949, at 30, left her second husband to move to Britain. Along with her young son, Peter, she packed the manuscript of her first novel, “The Grass is Singing.” The novel, which used the story of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage to portray poverty and racism in Southern Rhodesia, was published in 1950 to great success in Europe and the United States.
Lessing then embarked on the first of five deeply autobiographical novels – from “Martha Quest” to “The Four-Gated City” – works that became her “Children of Violence” series.
Her nonfiction work ranged from “Going Home” in 1957, about her return to Southern Rhodesia, to “Particularly Cats,” a book about her pets, published in 1967.