The novelist Doris Lessing, who tackled race, ideology, gender politics and the workings of the psyche in a prolific and often iconoclastic career, died in London on Sunday at the age of 94, her publisher HarperCollins said.
The British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie hailed the “warmth, sharp mind and ferocity” of a writer who continually reinvented herself to challenge conventions, but defied the feminists and leftists who would have claimed her for their cause.
Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, only the 11th woman to do so, but characteristically refused to offer the expected gushing response on hearing the news, observing drily: “One can get more excited than one gets, you know.”
Born to British parents in what was then Persia, now Iran, on Oct. 22, 1919, Lessing was mostly raised in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where they moved when she was five.
When she left for Britain at 30, escaping the scene of an unhappy childhood and two failed marriages, she had in her suitcase the manuscript of a novel that broke new ground with its depiction of an inter-racial relationship in her white-ruled homeland. “The Grass Is Singing” was an immediate bestseller in Britain, Europe and America.
Her early stories and novellas set in Africa, published during the 1950s and early 1960s, decried the dispossession of black Africans by white colonials and exposed the sterility of white culture in southern Africa - work that made her a “prohibited alien” in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa.
Lessing wrote that, for her, Africa was “not a place to visit unless one chooses to be an exile ever afterwards from an inexplicable majestic silence lying just over the border of memory or of thought”.
But it was her 1962 novel “The Golden Notebook” that brought her international fame with its experimental style and format, and linked her firmly to the feminist cause.
Its female heroine, Anna Wulf, is a writer exploring her own artistic and personal disintegration as she tries to make sense of a life compartmentalised into various roles.
The Swedish Academy said in its Nobel citation that it “belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship”.
But while the growing feminist movement claimed it as a defining statement, Lessing saw her work as much more complex, and resisted being co-opted into the “sisterhood”.