Song of herself

In 1949, Doris Lessing closed her own "red notebook", divorced Gottfried Lessing, the German communist she had married to "protect" him from the anti-Germanism of the war years, and moved to London with her son Peter and the manuscript of her first novel. Three weeks before her own death on November 17, Lessing had lost Peter, the child she had cared for through years of illness. For an ailing 94-year-old who had made a career of ballasting the storm even as she stood outside it, what capacity for grief does a personal loss retain? We may never know. For her conservative detractors, she was a mother who had abandoned two young kids, from her first marriage, to strike out on her own. For her revolutionary (communist and, later, feminist) friends-turned-enemies, she had a habit of ditching everything she grew attached to.

Lessing was not the everyday iconoclast, demolishing convention to turn herself into a static icon. What she wrote, whether about a white farmer's affair with her African servant, or a near-complete exposition of the entirety of a woman's being (The Golden Notebook), became handy tools for several "-isms". She, however, chose a wilfulness she demonstrated since her days of wandering in the African bush to avoid her mother not to be pigeonholed. This was not betrayal but sincerity. Her troubled relationship with feminism, for example, is the best illustration of that intellectual and moral clarity. Lessing, writer, woman, a fiercely independent mind, was always two steps ahead of the rest.

In the words of Joyce Carol Oates, Lessing was vast and contained multitudes, as Walt Whitman sang of himself. She wasn't the best of stylists, J.M. Coetzee testified. But at the heart of her fiction stands a deep love for humanity. That's why her books will endure beyond all else about her.

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