The Nobel Prize in Literature is an important mark of Swedish achievement. Throughout its one-hundred-and-seven year history, the award has been bestowed upon many legendary writers and a number of women as well. Last week, Doris Lessing joined the ranks of these few but handsome ladies when she was named the recipient of the 107th annual Nobel Prize in Literature.
Unfortunately, few have ever heard of her. So, as a man who has spent much of his life reading and rereading the complete works of Doris Lessing, I took it upon myself to share with you some information about the new Nobel Laureate.
Doris Lessing was born of British parents in Iran, at a time when Iran was still called Persia, and Persia was still called receptive to imperial exploitation. When Doris was five, she moved with her family to Zimbabwe. Her father was something of an entrepreneur, and had followed his quest for fortune to the maize market in Southern Rhodesia. Certain of success, he purchased an awfully large amount of land and, with notable alacrity, managed to run the venture into the ground.
Apparently Doris’ childhood was very painful, and often she would escape deep into the jungles – of her imagination. Perhaps it was there, tucked beneath some bush or shrub, that she first conceived of the sweet galactic battles that populate her acclaimed Carnopus Argos series, or had the idea to one day produce, not one, but two volumes of autobiography; maybe the jungle was even where she first created Martha Quest, the suitably named heroine of her four-volume bildungsroman. Of course, we will never know for sure, and the Lessing fans among us will forever be left quivering at the brashness of such speculation.
Doris left home at 15. Soon, she was married with two children and living in the capital of Rhodesia. Finding married life stuffy and oppressive, Doris, in a deeply courageous act, fled from her husband and her two infant children. She became a communist. Additionally, she married a communist, and joined a communist book club. Unfortunately, the marriage soon fell apart, and again she fled; this time, however, she took with her his last name, as well as the child she had by him. A true Lessing aficionado might point out here that Doris had a habit of buying an ideology hook, line and sinker, only to later discard it and shit all over it. So it was with communism: while her first novels were packed to the brim with commie ideology, she soon grew tired of it: and she disassociated herself from the party, and then she shat upon the party. But regardless of her motivation, she left communism, and sailed ahead into the open waters that was the young feminist movement.
Someone once said of the Velvet Underground that, while not many people purchased their records, those who did immediately went out and started their own bands. Similarly, one could say that, while not many people purchased The Golden Notebook, those who did immediately went out and became feminists, or at the very least more feminine. With the publication of the Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing became the major voice of Chick Lit, as well as a hero to the burgeoning feminist movement. It was so successful that, according to Wikipedia, it was “translated into many languages, including Arabic”. I myself discovered the Golden Notebook during a time of great need. To me, the Golden Notebook was just that: a notebook of gold. But I digress. One could say many more things about Doris Lessing’s relationship with feminism; but I am not that one.
In the 1980s, Doris Lessing, like many other old and well-established artists, lost her mind. Two things precipitated this psychological breakdown: firstly, her discovery of Sufism; secondly, her inability to keep repressed that awful urge present in most great writers – namely, the urge to write genre fiction.
Her attraction to Sufism developed gradually, and was aided along by the writings of Idries Shah, a Sufi mystic who maintains that man would not understand his own fate until he understood his connection to the fate of his society. Nowhere in his work, however, does Shah suggest that Doris Lessing should incorporate these beliefs into a five-volume space fantasy epic. Yet Doris Lessing did just that. Here is a description of the book, taken from her publisher’s website: Doris Lessing’s celebrated space fiction [is] set in an extraordinary cosmos where the fate of the Earth is influenced by the rivalries and interactions of three powerful galactic empires. The story of the final days of our planet is told through the reports of Johor, an imperial emissary sent from the space empire of Canopus. Twentieth-century Earth, named ‘Shikasta, the stricken’ by the kindly, paternalistic Canopeans who colonised it many centuries ago, is under the influence of the evil empire of Puttiora. War, famine, disease and environmental disasters ravage the planet. To Johor, mankind is a ‘totally crazed species’, racing towards annihilation: his orders to save humanity set him what seems to be an impossible task. Without question, a deeply compelling premise. And while Doris Lessing has received many awards and accolades throughout her decades-long career (the most recent of which is that Nobel Prize, of course), it is with regard to this work that she has received what is arguably her greatest honor.
At http://www.geocities.com/TimesSquare/Labyrinth/5798/links.html, self-described “traveler and homesteader” Ben R. Edgerly set up a role-playing-game based in the Canopus in Argos universe. I cannot recommend this RPG more highly. Back in the late 90s, this game consumed two years of my life. For there is no thrill quite like venturing to the alien planet of Shikasta, only to realize, like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, that it was once our home as well.
(Unfortunately, Mr. Edgerly has stopped updating the site, and the game has fallen into disrepair. I urge all of you to flood Mr. Edgerly’s inbox with emails imploring him to rectify this tragedy and re-launch the Canopus In Argos RPG.)
In conclusion: who is Doris Lessing? To those of us who know her well, Doris Lessing is a great many things. She is the seed of Persia and the fruit of Rhodesia; she is the Oprah of the communist book club, and the teat that suckled an infant feminist movement; she is the “soft” in “soft science fiction”, the whirling dervish of letters, and the inspiration for a truly wonderful RPG.
Could the Swedish Academy have gotten it any more right?