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In the course of a long and eventful life, author Doris Lessing was many things.
She was a mother — and a self-described "house mother" for a procession of starving artists, writers and political refugees. She was a refugee herself, from bourgeois respectability in 1940s Rhodesia. She was a campaigner against racism, a lover, an ardent communist, and a serial rescuer of cats.
But during an interview in Lessing's North London home one dark, cold day just shy of her 89th birthday, the writer briskly rejected the label most frequently attached to her: feminist icon — particularly when applied to her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook.
"Oh, it's just stupid; I've seen it so often," she said. "I mean, there's nothing feminist about The Golden Notebook. The second line is: 'As far as I can see, everything is cracking up.' That is what The Golden Notebook is about!"
The novel follows Anna Wulf, a single mother and a writer on the verge of a nervous breakdown in post-war London. Wulf keeps different-colored notebooks to chronicle her political, social, sexual and emotional selves. Only in the golden notebook of the novel's title would all these selves finally be integrated.
The Golden Notebook has been called one of the great and most complex novels of the 20th century. Lessing herself has been called one of the century's most clear-eyed observers.
Indeed, even in the science fiction which she considered her finest work, Lessing's characters live firmly within — and are utterly the products of — history.
"I think all the time we are being manipulated by great social currents. We are not often aware of it," Lessing said. "Well, my life certainly has been. First, it's been dominated by war, right from the start. I've never been free of all that. I got married and had children because of the Second World War — as all of us did, exclaiming, 'Oh, no, we are never going to bring a child into this wicked world!' But we had children by the dozen and got married. So, no, this is how we are formed."
Lessing was raised by British parents in Zimbabwe — called Rhodesia then. She left school at 13, left home at 15 and married for the first time at 19.
By the age of 30, Lessing had married again and become disenchanted with her second husband and his communist beliefs. She moved to London with their son, and began living some of the experiences described in The Golden Notebook.
While her novels tended to attack sweeping historical and social themes, Lessing could also work in miniature. In 1999, she read from an essay called "A Week in Heidelberg." In it, she trains her powers of observation on a blackbird – "A bold, black, glossy bird," she writes, "with eyes outlined in orange." She had wooed it to her hotel windowsill with a piece of apple.
"He knew I was there — or something was making him nervous — and he kept jabbing his beak hard into the apple flesh, then stopping to look at the white screen close to him. And then there was another series of quick, downward jabs. To shrink yourself down in imagination and see that gleaming weapon just above you — what a horror! The worm's eye view..."
For all of the honors showered upon Lessing, the literary establishment seemed ambivalent about her.
"She was never a great stylist," author and critic Blake Morrison says. "No one would sit down to relish the prose. What she was was a great observer, a great joiner-in, really, engaging with the intellectual movements, the swirls and currents of the day."
It's an assessment with which Lessing would likely have agreed. "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? I think that some of my books are very good. I've written some rather good short stories."
Lessing once refused to allow the Queen to declare her a dame of the British Empire, because — in the author's words — "There is no British Empire." Lessing called winning the Nobel Prize "a disaster" for her writing, but her friends say the money which came with the prize helped ease her final years, spent, by her own account, giving interviews and caring for her invalid son.