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Doris Lessing Revisits — And Rewrites — The Past

Doris Lessing became the oldest writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007.
Doris Lessing became the oldest writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007.
A 1984 photo shows Lessing and her cat in her London flat.
/ AFP/Getty Images
A 1984 photo shows Lessing and her cat in her London flat.

Just shy of her 89th birthday, English writer Doris Lessing has attracted many labels in the past six decades: feminist, Communist, activist, social commentator and — as of last year — Nobel laureate. But the only label she has consistently acknowledged is writer: "I write," she says. "That is what I do."

Now, as she nears the end of her own life, Lessing is attempting to make some sense of her beginnings. Her latest — and, she says, last — book is called Alfred and Emily.

Part memoir, part historical fiction, the book mixes a biography of Lessing's parents (the Alfred and Emily of the title) with an imagined past, in which the two never met.

"She tells one story of her parents which is completely fictionalized, and then she puts that back-to-back with a story of exactly equal length, which is the truth," says literary critic Blake Morrison. "I think what she's actually doing is getting you to reflect on which is ... more true: the imaginary tale of her parents, or the rather grimmer tale of what really happened to them."

Life Under A Harsh Sun

On a gray, drizzly afternoon, Lessing sits surrounded by books and untidy piles of papers in a sprawling second-floor room of the north London house she shares with her invalid son.

Her childhood was spent far from here, in a mud-and-thatch farmhouse in white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). It was hardly idyllic, with her mother's evening gowns decomposing in trunks, her father's dream of farming dying in the harsh African sun.

"[My parents] were badly damaged by World War I. ... They never got over it," she says. "My father actually had a wooden leg and had, what was then called shell shock, but is now called ... post-traumatic ... disorder or something."

Her mother's wounds were less visible, but deeper. Lessing describes her as a talented woman, but a "disastrous mother."

"Once she'd married my father and landed in Africa, she had nothing to use [her talent] on except her children," says Lessing. "She was devoted, you see: 'My life is devoted to my children,' God help us."

Imagining A Past Without World War I

Lessing has returned often to the smothering mother and rebellious daughter in her more than 40 books. But on the cusp of her 10th decade, the author seems, finally, to have laid that demon to rest; in the fictionalized half of Alfred and Emily, Lessing creates a world in which her parents would have been happy.

The novel imagines a century in which World War I never happened, and gives her father fine sons and the English farm he always wanted. As for her mother, Lessing says she gave her a career and "the sort of life she should have had — which doesn't help her at all, but it helps me."

The book also imagines Alfred and Emily with different spouses; in other words, Lessing doesn't just abolish World War I — she abolishes herself. It's a nullification that the Nobel laureate describes as a "great pleasure" to write. ("So what?" she says. "I mean, the world can live without me.")

'I've Written One Or Two Good Books'

This isn't the first time Lessing has dabbled with fractured narratives. The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, was hailed as one of the great and most complex novels of the 20th century.

The novel features a series of parallel notebooks set in postwar London, where the protagonist, a novelist and single mother, battles writer's block; leaves the Communist Party; abandons, or is abandoned by, a series of lovers; and tries to reconcile her political, social and sexual selves. It's been called the first feminist novel — a label Lessing herself emphatically disowns.

"Oh, it's just stupid. ... I mean, there's nothing feminist about The Golden Notebook," she says. The second line is: 'As far as I can see, everything is cracking up.' That is what The Golden Notebook is about!"

Lessing says the book feels pretty dated now — but in a way, she says, that's the point of all her work:

"I have done quite a good job of documenting a lot of our time, I think. I mean, what is The Golden Notebook? It couldn't be written now, could it?" she says. "You know, looking at it objectively, I've written one or two good books."

Lessing's "one or two good books" have led to a degree of fame that she hasn't always welcomed; a decade ago, Lessing declined her majesty's offer to make her a dame of the British Empire because, as she said, "there is no British Empire." And has called winning the Nobel Prize for literature "a disaster" for her writing.

"You know, I've met ... other Nobel Prize winners," she says, "and they all say the same thing: You don't do any work for a year. You just talk."

Lessing, who spends much of her time looking after her son and dealing with doctors, is not certain that she will write again.

"By the time I've done all that, there's very little left over," she says. "I have written quite a lot of books. I don't have to write another one — do I?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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