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Doris Lessing, a Rebel With Many Causes

François Gallix
p. 103-108

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1I would like to give you an idea of Doris Lessing’s acceptance speech and then select a few points for further discussion during the round table. I would also like to say that Doris Lessing is so unpredictable that it seems almost impossible to say what her latest novels really are. We were discussing that before the round table. Chronologically, her latest book seems to be Alfred and Emily which was published yesterday in London. Extracts from this novel were read during the Nobel ceremony in London. But there is also a thought-provoking short story very recently published in New Writing 15, entitled ‘In the National Gallery’ which is partly autobiographical, as most of her texts. The story is that Doris Lessing is just having a quiet time at the National Gallery in London and she decides, instead of going round the museum, to select one particular painting—that of a horse by George Stubbs, and to sit and write down her own reflections. There are several groups of visitors who come and sit in front of the Stubbs, particularly a French girl she describes affectionately in great details.

2The Cleft, published very recently as well is a novel about a mythical female world where men are finally introduced to give it some pep! But A Love Child can also be considered as her latest novel, or rather, novella, published in French separately in a very fluid translation by Isabelle D. Philippe. In the British edition entitled The Grandmothers, it is in fact part of a volume including four novellas with

3A Love Child. The theme is that of a thwarted love story during the Second World War, taking place in South Africa and in India. It could be read as having a comparable structure as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: a love story that never took place, Clarissa preferring the safety of Richard Dalloway to Peter Walsh (who leaves for India). In A Love Child, Daphné also refuses the passionate love story she could have had in South Africa with James Reed, a romantic young man who loves literature and with whom she has a son (the love child of the title), but refuses to upset the provincial life she was leading with her husband.

4What is sure is that on December 10th, 2007, Doris Lessing, aged eighty-eight was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, thus becoming the eleventh woman novelist to win the prize over the 106 years of its existence since 1901. For health reasons, she was unable to go to Stockholm and her acceptance speech was pre- recorded. She received her prize in London later on the 30th of January. This remarkable acceptance speech I am now going to talk about is at the same time a model of humanism, a social and political manifesto and a wonderful lesson in writing. It seems to encapsulate the spirit of most of her forty-two books of fiction. That is why I thought it would perhaps be a good introduction even though it comes near the end of her writing career. But obviously it refers to the other texts she wrote before that. Indeed it seems to contain the spirit of all her forty-two books, seven collections of essays and her two books of memoirs. As in all her works, the speech contains a strong autobiographical basis, a moral purpose and several embedded stories narrated with time-shifts, all about women characters.

5Long extracts of this speech translated by Isabelle D. Philippe were published in Le Monde dated Dec. 10, 2007. This is how I found out about the speech and was so impressed that I immediately wrote to say that something should be done so that French readers could know about this wonderful speech. The following day I read the article in Le Monde. It is almost the full text, not completely, but the main points are there.

6In her speech, Doris Lessing addresses her listeners directly in the first person and sends them on a breathtakingly a-chronological journey through time and space, embedding several impressive narratives. First, autobiographical, recalling her childhood in Zimbabwe, where ‘[she] was brought up in what was virtually called a mud hut, thatched’, then discussing our modern computerized society, to finally end up at the beginning as far back as cave men—and you’ll see she’s better than John Fowles, she ends in fact at the beginning—as the cave men are listening to a story—teller around a fire. ‘For our heritage of stories began in fire, magic, the spirit world. And that is where it is held today.’ She thus visits a village school in Zimbabwe and where no books are available in the so-called library, where books are begged for by the pupils aged from six to twenty-six, all eager but unable to read: ‘They taught us to read, but we have no books.’ On the following day, she is invited to give a talk in a London highly selective school where this time, the library is overfilled with books that the privileged pupils do not read: ‘A lot of the boys have never read at all.’

7This leads her to reflect on our computerized civilization where the internet triumphs and where only few people read books. She then remembers what one of her friends told her about a village in Zimbabwe where the people had been without food for three days but where they were discussing about books and how to get them, the price of a simple paperback making it impossible for anyone to get ‘under Mugabe’s reign of terror’ (Mugabe, obviously not being one of her friends).

8Finally, the last story takes the reader in the depths of South Africa, and this is how it starts: ‘I would like you to imagine yourselves somewhere in Southern Africa, standing in an Indian store. . .’ She then zooms in on a black woman reading torn-up pages, and there is a full story about why she is reading not a full book, but torn-up pages from Anna Karenina: ‘She is reading slowly, mouthing the words.’ This is the starting point of what could be, indeed, the germ of a wonderful short story outlined and even suggested by Doris Lessing: ‘It would make a pretty story, perhaps someone will tell it.’ I have told my students at Paris-Sorbonne: ‘Perhaps some of you will write this short story, using the germ from Doris Lessing’s speech!’ We’ll see. . .

9Doris Lessing has always been a rebel with many causes that often appear as being contradictory, as my colleague has rightly pointed out. She has always made a point of being politically incorrect—we could keep that, really as the main line for our discussion—even being a non-conformist who likes to provoke: see her recent declaration about Nine-Eleven (‘not as terrible as the Americans think’). Also, I totally agree with what my colleague said about her being a feminist and an anti- feminist at the same time, a communist and an anti-communist—we could go on like that. In fact, Doris Lessing often likes to contradict herself like her characters: like Martha Quest in The Children of Violence or Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook. This seems to have got worse—or better—with age, and after all why not? It is quite encouraging. She has been even more politically incorrect than she used to be in her youth—in The Grandmothers, for instance, Roz and Lil are two young and totally uninhibited grandmothers. She obviously refuses to be pigeonholed and does not like being limited to being simply a feminist or a communist.

10Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, published in 1950 was an immediate success. It won the Prix Médicis étranger and was adapted into a film by Michael Redburn in 1981. It allowed her to become a full-time novelist. The book was influenced by her experience in Rhodesia as a committed communist, it includes a harsh criticism of colonialism with the part played by the British and of the approaching apartheid, the story being that of the search for truth about the murder of a white farmer’s wife by her black servant.

11Then, still in the fifties came the five volumes of The Children of Violence. Partly autobiographical, the series has the structure of a Bildungsroman and is the story of Martha Quest, first in Africa, as a member of the Communist party and finally of her arrival in London. The sixties were the years of The Golden Notebook (1962) that became a cult novel, won the Prix Médicis étranger in 1976 and turned Lessing into an icon of feminism through the character of Anna Wulf. Impossible to summarize, this is how Doris Lessing introduced her novel: ‘There is a skeleton, or frame, called Free Women, which is a conventional short novel, about 60,000 words long, and which could stand by itself. But it is divided into five sections and separated by stages of the four Notebooks, Black, Red, Yellow and Blue. The Notebooks are kept by Anna Wulf, a central character of Free Women. She keeps four, and not one because, as she recognises, she has to separate things off from each other, out of fear of chaos, of formlessness–of breakdown.’

12In the seventies/eighties Doris Lessing was influenced by Sufism and published a series of five novels in the genre she liked to call ‘Space Fiction’: Canopus in Argos, the first volume being entitled Shikaska (1979). About those Space novels, Doris Lessing said in Le Monde: ‘Je suis partie dans les étoiles pour voir les affaires humaines de plus haut’ (12 May 1981).

13And finally, one should not forget that in 1983, Doris Lessing, the future Nobel Prize for literature fooled several publishers with a wonderful and very successful literary hoax when she published The Diary of a Good Neighbour under the invented name of Jane Somers. Only 2,000 copies were then sold in Britain. This was followed in 1984 by If the Old could. On 23 September 1984, Doris Lessing revealed in The Sunday Times that she was in fact the author of the two novels and sales soared. She had characteristically explained that her intention had been to free herself from the set image her name had created among publishers and reviewers.

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Lessing, Doris, The Grass Is Singing. London: Michael Joseph, 1950.

Lessing, Doris, The Golden Notebook, London: Michael Joseph, 1962.

Lessing, Doris, The Memoirs of a Survivor, London: Octagon, 1974. Shikasta, London: Cape, 1979.

Lessing, Doris, The Marriages between Zones Three, Four and Five, London: Cape, 1980.

Lessing, Doris, ‘On not winning the Nobel Prize’, Nobel Lecture. December 7, 2007 (pdf, 11 p.), traduit par Isabelle D. Philippe, ‘Comment ne pas gagner le prix Nobel’, Le Monde, 9–10 décembre 2007, 17. lecture_fr.html

Somers, Jane, (Doris Lessing), The Diary of a Good Neighbour, London: Cape, 1983.

Somers, Jane, If the Old Could, London: Cape, 1984.

Somers, Jane, The Grandmothers—four short novels, London: Harper Flamingo, 2003. Somers, Jane, ‘A Love Child’, The Grandmothers, London: Harper Flamingo, 2003.

Somers, Jane, ‘In the National Gallery’, New Writing 15 (2007): 69–74.

Somers, Jane, Alfred and Emily, London: Fourth Estate, 2008.

Woolf, Virginia, Mrs. Dalloway, London: Hogarth Press, 1925.

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François Gallix, « Doris Lessing, a Rebel With Many Causes », Études britanniques contemporaines, 36 | 2009, 103-108.

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François Gallix, « Doris Lessing, a Rebel With Many Causes », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 36 | 2009, mis en ligne le 08 septembre 2017, consulté le 22 avril 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.3723

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François Gallix

Université Paris-Sorbonne.
François Gallix est professeur émérite de littérature anglaise à l’université Paris-Sorbonne et directeur honoraire du centre de recherche ERCLA (écritures du roman contemporain de langue anglaise). Il a publié plusieurs ouvrages et articles dans ce domaine, en particulier sur Joseph Conrad et Graham Greene. Il a récemment présenté et publié le premier chapitre d’un roman inédit de Greene dans le Times de Londres. Ses recherches se concentrent sur le roman anglais des xxe et xxie siècles, en particulier sur le prochain ouvrage de Graham Swift, Making an Elephant.

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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