When Writing the Personal Was Revolutionary

When Doris Lessing was informed last week that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, her salty response was, "Oh Christ. It's been going on now for 30 years; one can't get more excited than one gets." She then turned from the camera and the inquiring reporter to pay the taxi she had just emerged from. Clearly, she's got her priorities.

The anecdote was repeated in almost all the coverage of Lessing's honor. It's delightful to watch a public intellectual be so off-handed about such a distinguished award, but it would be a mistake to let this dismissal eclipse the long-overdue recognition of a writer who has created some of the best work examining lived political experience and women's role within it. Lessing is, as Bernard Bergonzi wrote in The New York Review of Books in 1965, "keenly interested in the way contemporary society actually works." Lessing's commitment (a word she used in her 1957 essay, "The Small Personal Voice," to describe the role of writers) to the obligations of her chosen craft has always set her apart. "The minimum act of humility for a writer: to know that one is a writer at all because one represents, makes articulate, is continuously and invisibly fed by, numbers of people who are inarticulate, to whom one belongs, to whom one is responsible."

Lessing belongs, as it were, to the women (and men) whose political struggles she articulated so well. By writing honestly about the ways in which women struggle with gender roles, motherhood, and sexuality, she threw open the doors to a more complex understanding of social interactions, and validated women's experiences as key to political transformation. Moreover, it is a theme she has continued to rally around. (Her most recent book The Cleft is a fable about how the two sexes developed, positing women as the first sex and men as the interlopers.) Lessing's restless intellect and her refusal to be pigeonholed as a feminist writer or within a genre have made her one of the most relevant social commentators of our time. Lessing does not write about politics -- she writes them. Because the real heart of feminist politics, and, we should hope, left politics, is the recognition of inequality.

Born Doris May Tayler in Persia in 1919, Lessing spent her childhood in Southern Rhodesia (known today as Zimbabwe). After she completed the eighth grade, she dropped out of school and taught herself at home. At age 18, she moved to what is now Harare, where she married twice, having two children in her first marriage and one in her second. Of marriage, she said in a 1963 interview, "I do not think that marriage is one of my talents. I've been much happier unmarried than married." She moved to London in 1949 and published her first book, The Grass is Singing, the next year. She went on to publish nearly a book a year for the next 20 years.

Lessing made her name with her lucid depiction of a woman's political coming of age in her five volume series, "Children of Violence," published between 1952 and 1969. The novels follow Martha Quest from her youth spent on the veldt before World War I to her political and romantic entanglements in the midst of World War II to post-war London. Lessing writes of Quest's adjustments, often slow and painful, to marriage and motherhood, and her immersion in politics. In Landlocked, the fourth volume in the series, Lessing explores the fractured world of communist and leftist politics in the wake of WWII, which mirrors Quest's fractured view of herself. "She had simply to accept, finally, that her role in life, for his period, was to walk like a housekeeper in and out of different rooms," Lessing writes, "but the people in the rooms could not meet each other or understand each other, and Martha must not expect them to."

Lessing became known for her frank writing about women's sexuality and inner lives. Her 1962 book The Golden Notebook, which told of Anna Wulf's struggle to make a life for herself, was hailed as a feminist text. But Lessing repudiated this characterization of the novel, writing a controversial essay for the Partisan Review in which she declined the feminist label and expressed her doubts that feminism itself could really accomplish much. For her, the book was an exploration of the ways women (and men) divvy up the various aspects of their lives. The golden notebook of the title is Wulf's, which she begins as a means of combining the previously compartmentalized pieces of her writing and life. Feminists latched on to the novel precisely because Lessing's experiment in form so well expressed the divisions many women felt in their personal lives. The revelation of the decade was that the personal was, in the now clichéd line, political. For Lessing to apply her considerable literary skill to a true portrait of what the personal world of women looked like felt revolutionary.

Lessing's denial of the feminist label for The Golden Notebook has lead many to regretfully conclude that Lessing is anti-feminism. But her interaction with the idea of feminism has always been more complex. In a 1971 preface to The Golden Notebook, she writes that she intended the novel to be about "breakdown," about people needing to fall apart in order to find self-healing. "But nobody so much as noticed this central theme, because the book was instantly belittled, by friendly reviewers as well as by hostel ones as being about the sex war ... I have been in a false position ever since, for the last thing I have wanted to do was to refuse to support women." As Katherine Fishburn, author of a monograph on Lessing, observed, "Although what Lessing wrote at the beginning of her career no longer seems shocking, her early work did help break new artistic ground by validating the idea that the experiences of individual women were just as representative of modern life as those of individual men." It's also worth noting that the very experiment in form that Lessing saw as one of the real triumphs of the novel is what makes her work a true depiction of women's experiences at the time.

And her honest depiction of sex and women's bodies was a theme she developed with ongoing passion. In the first volume of her memoir, Under My Skin, she describes composing a scene where Martha Quest lies in the bath:

When I wrote it, for a long time I hesitated about describing the joy in her pubic hair, young and glossy, and growing in three perfect little swirls. But I knew there would be a fuss and if this was a question of principle, then it wasn't my principle. Later, in the 1970s, I wrote a story called One off the Short List, and in it a woman is described as having golden fringes of underarm hair. An American publisher, and then magazines, would not print the story because of that hair. Yet in America you might describe any killings, tortures, rapes, horrors of war, cruelties. Not underarm hair in a story about seduction and sex. But I insisted, for by then, it was a matter of principle.

Lessing is at her most insightful when she applies this uncompromising description of women to their political development. In The Good Terrorist she describes Alice Mellings, a mild, working-class young woman in 1980s London, and her involvement in a bomb-making terrorist group. The horror of Alice is that what keeps her tied to this group is her skill at the traditionally female role of domesticity. She moves with her boyfriend Jasper into a squat with a motley collection of half-radicalized 20-somethings. Alice is driven to clean and organize and transform the building into a home, which in turn nurtures her anger at the social strictures which limit her access to resources. The two -- her anger usually subsumed under a cheerful exterior, and her drive to create a home pushing her again and again into the realities of Britain's class divide -- work hand in hand.

Of course, I'm leaving out whole portions of Lessing's oeuvre. In addition to her fiction, she's written three plays and a volume of poetry and adapted her science fiction series for two operas scored by Philip Glass. And throughout, she places women and their negotiations with self and with gender on equal footing with her exposition of politics.

It is this witching combination of politics and women's lives that has become Lessing's hallmark. She writes in the second volume of her memoir: "This business of a book changing one's life. That can only mean that one is ready to change and the book tips the balance." And after decades of books that push readers to the tipping point, Lessing's considerable talents have finally been given their due.