Philip Hensher

The genius of Doris Lessing 1919-2013

Doris Lessing died this morning, aged 94. The below is from the Spectator’s archives.

Doris Lessing’s Nobel win came as a surprise to everyone, the author apparently included. Despite her enormous, decades-long international reputation, she was less fancied than dozens of patently smaller writers. That could only have been ascribed to a cynical estimate of the way the Swedish academy works. On literary merit, no one would have questioned her right to it. She is one of the greatest of novelists in English.

Her career is a matter of savage breakthroughs into quite new territory, as if her searching, sceptical intelligence could never be satisfied with stasis for long. It begins, dauntingly, with a novel of unmatched technical command, The Grass is Singing. This overwhelming tragedy, published as long ago as 1950, immediately revealed a novelist of huge natural gifts, and, when she chose to exercise it, a natural sense of classical style. Though set in Africa, and dense with the smells and sights of the veldt, its technique showed, surely, a writer who had greedily drunk up the great Russians. Lessing, born in Persia, grew up in rural Rhodesia. From the start, there are intimations of the girl who lived for the occasional parcel of books, eagerly submitting to them; her early writing is the work of someone who has read every word of the great classics several times over.

The scale of her ambition was immediately revealed after this small, perfect novel with a substantial, five-volume bildungs-roman, Children of Violence. The cycle, concerning the political and sexual maturity of Martha Quest, could certainly not be regarded as perfect. It clearly shows the strain of its lengthy gestation, published over 17 years. The first volume, Martha Quest (1952), is a very different novel from the last, The Four-Gated City (1969).

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