‘So why write novels?’ Doris Lessing asks in the preface she affixed to her most famous work, The Golden Notebook, almost ten years after its first publication in 1962. Her semi-rhetorical question stemmed from a conviction that within another ten years the world as she knew it would be swept away. Just as she had anticipated one wave of social change, largely in the way of sexual politics, she now foresaw another – this one far more profound, to her mind, albeit more nebulous. ‘Indeed, why!’ she continued. ‘I suppose we must go on living as if …’

That half-finished thought has stayed with me ever since I first read the novel as an adolescent. Lessing is the kind of author who looks about herself, takes in the irresistible paradox that the sheer ingenuity and innovation of the human race is matched only by its propensity to repeat its mistakes, and thinks: well, I must go on writing as if, mustn’t I? And so she did. For six decades Lessing wrote and wrote and wrote, always driven by that as if. As if literature’s capacity to anticipate, to tap into that collective feeling which has not yet found a public language, were its own kind of social agency. As if literature can matter. As if one can be understood. How, and by whom, and to what end – these are questions with as many answers as there are writers and readers to ask them.

Lessing is an exceptionally radical, innovative and stubbornly uncategoriseable author. Her constant experimentation with the novel form, with genre, with a dizzying array of themes, and even with her own identity as a novelist – notably in the case of the Jane Somers experiment, when she tricked her publishers and later readers by submitting manuscripts under a pseudonym – has occasionally been met with bewilderment if not outright dismissal from prominent critics. Her body of work includes everything from the celebrated psychological realism of her debut, The Grass is Singing (1950), through multiple collections of essays, stage plays, teleplays, opera librettos, novels, collections of short stories and two volumes of autobiography. Her novels cannot be grouped together with any ease. They range from the coming-of-age narrative of the first four volumes of her quintet, The Children of Violence (1952-1969), through the appearance of telepathy and apocalypticism in that series’ final volume, the disappearance of human protagonists in the space-fiction of Canopus in Argos (1979-1983), to the twisted magic realism of The Fifth Child (1988), back to the comparatively stable ground of love, again (1996), and most recently to the semi-autobiographical Alfred and Emily (2008), which will almost certainly be her last work.

Even at the level of the individual text, many of her novels are rich hybrids. Roberta Rubenstein, a key scholar of Lessing, noted recently that

Few other writers have successfully published in so many different formal ‘shapes’ or genres. Further, many of Lessing’s fictions themselves unfold through formal shape-shifting, from a novel-within-a-novel to diary and journal entries, parodies, and an assortment of fictional ‘documents’ – correspondence, book reviews, newspaper clippings, lectures, medical charts and archival reports.

Lessing is a formal activist, in that she frequently compels us to question our expectations of novelistic narrative, presenting us with what appears on the surface to be naturalism and, bit by bit, unpicking the text’s – and by implication the form’s – parameters. This experimentation with novelistic conventions seems to be driven less by an interest in experimentation per se, than by a desire to find those forms that will fit and mirror the unwieldy contours of content. As the protagonist of The Golden Notebook breaks down, so too does the novel’s tightly compartmentalised structure. Form is not subservient to content, nor content to form; when one reads a Lessing novel, the character of each seems to develop organically from and necessitate the other.

When Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, John Plotz commented that she was ‘the most famous author nobody’s ever heard of’ – though it depends whom you are asking. The reliably starchy Harold Bloom decried Lessing’s win as ‘sheer political correctness’, a complaint strangely at odds with the chorus from the other side of the fence labelling Lessing a traitor to ‘the cause’ (feminism, Marxism, take your pick). Bloom was also reported to have commented that

although Ms Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past fifteen years quite unreadable … fourth-rate science fiction.

We should probably be grateful for his allowance of those ‘few admirable qualities’. Bloom’s sentiments echo those expressed decades earlier by Gore Vidal, who criticised Lessing’s move into science fiction in the 1970s, comparing her to the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, and questioning the influence of Sufi mysticism on her work. Just prior to her Nobel win in 2007, an article in the New York Review of Books had John Leonard branding Lessing ‘dogged and relentless, stubborn and punitive’.

The disconnect between these summary dismissals of Lessing’s genre-bending and the reactions of those few people whose eyes do light up when I tell them what my doctoral thesis was about (namely, Lessing’s radical authorship) is both intriguing and surprising. What strikes me is that each person who claims to have read and loved one of Lessing’s novels seems to cite a different work. Some have stumbled across her harder science fiction (what she calls her ‘space fiction’) and been entranced by it; others have read her debut novel The Grass is Singing and been won over by the vivid psychological drama of its tale of colonial violence. One friend told me he had read The Cleft (2007) – a wonderfully strange novel that presents an origin-myth founded on female parthenogenesis and traces, through the narrative voice of a Roman historian, the havoc wrought by the birth of the first male – and been simultaneously floored and bewildered.

Geraldine Bedell, reviewing The Cleft for the Guardian, commented that the subject matter of that novel ‘strains at the form’. It is an observation one might make of Lessing’s work more generally. There are many novels whose structural tricks are the meat and purpose of their composition – their message, to be wilfully simplistic – but Lessing will happily use established forms, established conventions of genre, until they become inadequate to what she wants to say, inadequate to the strength or unwieldiness of the idea behind the work. And she is undoubtedly a novelist of ideas.

While I would hesitate to make broad statements about the scope of these ideas, I would say that there is a persistent theme that one can trace through many of her works. Lessing’s novels consistently illuminate and interrogate the disjunct between the internal and the external, between one’s public or political self and one’s interior life. She has a rare eye for the simultaneously formative and destructive patterns of division, compartmentalisation and categorisation that individuals must employ, wittingly or unwittingly, in order to function as social beings. From The Golden Notebook, through The Summer Before the Dark (1973), to love, again, her novels trace the intersection of public and private, the internalisation of social categories, and the way in which the structures we build to protect ourselves from social and psychological fragmentation simply obscure that fragmentation – even, in fact, propel it.

Lessing turned 94 this week. Born the year after World War I 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 has lived through World War II, the Cold War, and myriad other conflicts of every type and size. She has, indeed, often been closely connected with them – more than one might think. 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. All of which is to say that Lessing is a woman with a full swag of experience in negotiating the social and cultural effects of ideological conflict and dogmatism.

Her early novels were written during a transitional stage in contemporary British and postcolonial literatures, and in the germinal years of what might now be referred to as the era of postmodern literature. As a colonial brought up in what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) she was, to some extent, isolated from the British experience of modernism. 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 that she continues to occupy an uncomfortable place in a genealogy of that period: she is a late modernist, an early postmodernist, a social realist, a one-time Marxist, a Jungian, a Sufi and a science-fictionalist – among many other things.

The first novel of Lessing’s I ever read was Martha Quest, the opening volume in the Children of Violence series. I was in high school. I fell in love with this semi-autobiographical narrative of adolescence and young adulthood on the southern African veldt in the inter-war years, and envied the political and literary education the titular character cobbles together from books passed on by her young Jewish socialist friends, the Cohen brothers. The second, third and fourth volumes trace Martha’s first marriage, her immersion in the sundowner society of colonial Southern Africa, and her experience of motherhood – I loved them, too. The final novel, The Four-Gated City, follows Martha to London, and in its latter half takes off into the realm of telepathy and post-apocalyptic visions, ending with the destruction of modern Western society and the emergence of a new kind of human being.

When I first read this novel, I struggled with it; I could not follow the driving impulse of Lessing’s genre-bending innovation. But when I came back to the series some ten years later (and having read The Golden Notebook), I saw so much more clearly the intellectual and imaginative radicalism of her project. Here was multiplicity, ingenuity and a rhetorical openness that amounted to a repudiation of narrative and critical resolution. Lessing’s pursuit of ideas leads her to bend genres, to change the rules, to cross boundaries and often toss out the usual ingredients of novelistic prose altogether – as with the absence of recognisably human ‘characters’ in The Cleft, or in the latter volumes of the Canopus in Argos series. Anticipating and responding to the crisis of representation engendered by the epistemological collapse of postmodernism, Lessing’s use of form is explicitly and fruitfully mimetic. Where certainty cannot be posited within a text, for instance, the text itself ends without resolution: The Golden Notebook with a rhetorical question; The Four-Gated City with an ellipsis.

A report on Lessing’s Nobel Prize win in the Guardian referred to The Golden Notebook as her ‘postmodern feminist masterpiece’, while the New York Times suggested that ‘Ms. Lessing’s strongest legacy may be that she inspired a generation of feminists with her breakthrough novel’. Yet in the appended preface to this ‘feminist masterpiece’ Lessing expresses her belief that the equality of women with men is such a fait accompli that we might better spend our time considering other matters: 

I don’t think that Women’s Liberation will change much though – not because there is anything wrong with its aims, but because it is already clear that the whole world is being shaken into a new pattern by the cataclysms we are living through: probably by the time we are through, if we do get through at all, the aims of Women’s Liberation will look very small and quaint.

Irrespective of the significance of second-wave feminism and whatever lessons might be drawn from it in hindsight – and we might justifiably accuse Lessing of underplaying the significance of this ‘quaint’ social revolution – it is clear that her desire to distance herself from the project of women’s liberation was not so much an act of disavowal as an impatient insistence on an expanded political vision. Likewise, Lessing’s controversial comments at the 2001 Edinburgh Books Festival condemning contemporary feminism (or at least some aspects of it) stem not from a repudiation of the aims of women’s liberation, but of the ‘hot air and fine words’, which Lessing sees as having squandered some of the ‘great energy’ of the feminist project. One does not have to agree with Lessing’s observations (and I don’t entirely) to recognise that what is at issue here is not the stereotype of a true believer turned conservative. She is an example of a constantly inquiring, constantly questioning mind that has continually adapted belief to observation and experience – a mind so comprehensively non-partisan that it rejects any and all categorical constraints. As Geraldine Bedell observes, Lessing ‘has always resisted the designation of feminist novelist on the grounds that she is as coolly unsentimental about women as she is about men.’

It is not surprising that Lessing’s work – and The Golden Notebook, in particular – was embraced by the women’s liberation movement during the 1960s and 1970s. The protagonist and ‘author’ of that novel, Anna Wulf, is an unmarried woman and published writer with a child. She has several sexual relationships of varying lengths and levels of seriousness. Anna and her best friend Molly refer to themselves sardonically as ‘free women’, and they were taken up upon the novel’s publication as champions of an emerging feminism – they were independent, working women and single mothers. Nonetheless, as Lessing has wryly noted, she did not realise she was writing ‘a tract about the sex war’ until her readers told her so.

Lessing’s near-infamous (and arguably disproportionate) discomfort with being characterised as a feminist writer stems from a combination of motivations, but she is particularly uncomfortable with the reductive logic which seems to follow from such a characterisation – namely, that that must be all she is. Her occasionally blunt articulation of this discomfort, along with her move away from the psychological and social realism of The Golden Notebook, has led to her being seen in some quarters as a former fellow-traveller who has 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 has disavowed her earlier politics than that she has seen so many ideologies of emancipation turned into dogmas.

Central to so much of Lessing’s work is an awareness of the destructive consequences of false divisions – from the separation of Anna Wulf’s political, creative, working and sexual lives into discrete notebooks, to the incipient sexual difference that drives the ironic tragedy of The Cleft, to the labels applied to the telepaths in The Four-Gated City by a punishing psychiatric establishment. Lessing’s unwillingness to align herself with contemporary feminism stems from something of the same wariness of categorisation: she avows her belief in equality, but regards the politics of difference, which has defined modern discourse on gender, as a reiteration of division. Whether or not one agrees with her, or finds her assessment of the women’s liberation movement persuasive, it must be said that she is nothing if not consistent in her dislike of seeing her work used in the service of ideology. Early readers were by no means wrong to recognise in The Golden Notebook a prescient and provocative diagnosis of what Lessing referred to (albeit wryly) as ‘the sex war’. What the novel’s later preface suggests, however, 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 a broader theme: that of the individual who is both defined by and resistant to her relation to a social whole.

Does Lessing offer us any alternative to the patterns of categorisation, compartmentalisation, division and labelling which she so persistently interrogates? Alice Ridout speaks of Lessing as a ‘post-communist’ author, comparing the valence of the prefix to its function in the term ‘post-modernism’ – in the sense that it implies both a continuation and a rejection. Lessing is disillusioned with Marxism in theory and practice, yet she retains the propensity to ‘look at things as a whole and in relation to each other’ that she attributes to the Marxist readers of The Golden Notebook in that novel’s preface. To my mind, it is this vision of a ‘whole’ that embraces fragmentation, breakdown, opposition and dissent, rather than requiring its resolution, that constitutes Lessing’s response to codification of all kinds – political, social, sexual, creative, intellectual, formal, generic.

That a hybrid novel as complex, ambitious and unusual as The Golden Notebook was ever read as social realism – or rather, as just social realism – is surprising. It is as if Lessing’s astute diagnosis of the political and sexual climate in which she was writing was so fortuitous that the structural originality of the novel was overlooked, at least at first. But Lessing’s politics are not and were never reducible to an ideological allegiance; she has always been committed to a radically inclusive vision of literature’s representative, communicative and political possibilities. In The Golden Notebook, she produced a consummate piece of critical fiction by making the problem of representation, the very idea of an ethical function for authorship, the subject of her novel. Anna Wulf, in her formally divided state, is paralysed by her sense that the tools of literature are inadequate to the sheer scale and complexity of the collective human experience she desires to represent – and feels ethically bound to represent. Lessing’s novel is about this precise problem: for her, art and life are never more intimately and generatively – even if agonistically – connected than when the problem of representation is itself the subject of fiction.

I was introduced to Lessing’s work by my mother, and have noticed that there is a marked generational divide in the reactions I get when I am asked about the subject of my research. Readers of a certain age, whether they roll their eyes or gush praise, certainly know who Lessing is and have usually read (or at the very least come across) The Golden Notebook, whether by choice or via peer pressure. Yet in my own postgraduate cohort there are students of contemporary Anglophone literature who have never heard of her, and often enough – in Australia, at least – they seem to be in the majority. She is virtually absent from curricula in schools and universities, and so far as I am aware (and I would relish being corrected on this score) I am the only person publishing on Doris Lessing in the Australian academy right now, which is quite shocking to me given the sheer scale of her literary output: some forty publications of every shape and size, across six decades.

Early this year I set The Fifth Child as a text on a contemporary literature course for Masters students. It was on the course as an example of magic realism, though it is many other things besides. In a pleasurable coincidence, after I had already set the novel for my students I read John Plotz’s essay,  which describes his own experience teaching The Fifth Child to his graduate class. It is a short but striking novel that tells the story of a stubbornly conventional couple in 1960s England, who settle down outside London and decide to start a family. Four children arrive in quick succession. They are healthy, attractive, joyful and loving. But the fifth, Ben, is different. Whether he is a supernatural creature, a ‘goblin’, a genetic throwback, or the victim of other peoples’ neuroses, was the question around which many lively discussions centred in my own class. Plotz also talks about the intellectual conflict experienced by his students, who felt like they were subjects in Lessing’s textual experiment.

Margaret Drabble recently made an observation that I think has been true of Lessing throughout her lifetime, namely that: ‘She made her own place. She didn’t like categories. She didn’t even recognise them.’ It is a sentiment about which Lessing leaves us in little doubt. During a radio interview in 1984, she was called to account for her move into the realm of science-fiction 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”.’

Critics have always wanted to pin Lessing down, yet she has consistently resisted, sometimes to the point that one can’t help thinking that she enjoys upsetting people’s expectations for the sheer pleasure of it. She has always reminded me of D.H. Lawrence: although on the surface they might seem as different as two writers can be, they are both fiercely idiosyncratic, curmudgeonly, contrary, earnest and stubbornly uncategoriseable. I have come to believe that the impossibility of pinning Lessing down has led, at least to some extent, to the continuing instability of her popular and critical reputation – evidenced by the breadth of contrasting responses to her receiving the Nobel Prize, which we might regard as a mark of credit if ever there was one.

In a letter to E.P. Thompson in 1957, Lessing explained her disenchantment with organised activism and with the ideological certainty of her youth, expressing the belief that it was in her 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. 

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. 

I think that the knowledge which Lessing allowed herself to ‘simmer into’ will appear that much more prescient, that much more profound, when her legacy is considered in hindsight. Now that her writing years appear to have drawn to a close, I hope to see her work readdressed in popular and academic circles. 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 is 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. We are luckier than we perhaps realise that she did indeed go on to ‘write a lot of books’.

Works Cited

Diana Athill, Rachel Cusk, Margaret Drabble and Natalie Hanman, ‘The Golden Notebook 50 Years On,’ The Guardian (6 April 2012).

Geraldine Bedell. ‘Women and Children First,’ The Guardian (7 January 2007).

Sarah Crown, ‘Doris Lessing Wins Nobel Prize,’ The Guardian (12 October 2007).

Fiachra Gibbons, ‘Lay off Men, Lessing tells Feminists,’ The Guardian (14 August, 2001).

Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose (editors), Doris Lessing: The Alchemy of Survival (Ohio University Press, 1988).

John Leonard. ‘The Adventures of Doris Lessing,’ The New York Review of Books (30 November 2006).

John Plotz, ‘Feeling Like a Stoic: Doris Lessing’s Experimental Fiction,’ Public Books (7 August 2012).

Motoko Rich and Sarah Lyall, ‘Doris Lessing Wins Nobel Prize in Literature,’ The New York Times (11 October 2007).

Alice Ridout, ‘What is the Function of the Storyteller? The relationship between Why and How Lessing Writes,’ Doris Lessing: Interrogating the Times, edited by Phyllis Sternberg Perrakis, Debrah Raschke and Sandra Singer (Ohio State University Press, 2010).

Roberta Rubenstein, ‘Notes for Proteus: Doris Lessing Reads the Zeitgeist,’ Doris Lessing: Interrogating the Times, edited by Phyllis Sternberg Perrakis, Debrah Raschke and Sandra Singer (Ohio State University Press, 2010).

Gore Vidal, ‘Paradise Regained,’ The New York Review of Books (20 December 1979).