Wired members of the literary world knew about Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize before she did, and her first response was an almost studied lack of interest to the financial award or the prestige it might bring. “Oh Christ…I couldn’t care less,” she is reported to have said when she came in from grocery shopping to find a phalanx of reporters at her doorstep. But even before Lessing showed off her indifference, the press seemed eager to paint her as a departure from her immediate predecessors. According to the New York Times, “Although Ms. Lessing is passionate about social and political issues, she is unlikely to be as controversial as the previous two winners, Orhan Pamuk of Turkey or Harold Pinter of Britain, whose views and comments on political situations led commentators to suspect that the Swedish Academy was choosing its winners in part for nonliterary reasons.” In the past few years, these “nonliterary reasons” have been specifically linked to authors and or political figures (in the Peace Category) who have questioned the United States’ involvement in Iraq.
Though Lessing as not in many years been an advocate for specific change, her work is, however, just as political as that of previous Nobel Laureates. At the outset of her career she was explicitly political. Her first novel, The Grass is Singing (1950) set out to depict the brutalities of colonialism, and while still a member of the Communist Party in the UK, she was banned indefinitely from Southern Rhodesia (where she was raised) and South Africa. But for most of her career, Lessing has espoused a politics of disavowal. In 1962, Lessing splashed onto the international literary scene with The Golden Notebook, a disjointed, difficult door-stopper of a novel that sought to unify the divergent interests of a writer named Anna Wulf (a disguised Doris Lessing herself). In a black notebook, Anna records her memories of Central Africa, in a red one, her involvement with the British Communist party, and in a blue one she seeks to understand her dreams and ambitions, the subconscious terrain of psychoanalytic interest. The golden notebook of the title hopes to bring these divergent documents together, seeking to understand how women resolve the tensions between their personal experiences and their political interests. The Golden Notebook remains her most critically acclaimed novel, and it is the work the Swedish Academy seems most intent on celebrating through its award.
In interviews since the ’60s Lessing has referred to this novel as her “albatross.” Its success has haunted her career through subsequent years of much critical disapproval. But the political import of The Golden Notebook lies perhaps in its fundamental discomfort with political engagement itself. Ultimately Anna Wulf comes to the conclusion that the political questions that seemed so important at the outset of the novel seem empty by its end, in much the same way that Lessing’s own involvement with communism came to be replaced first with Jungian psychoanalysis and later with Sufi mysticism. The novels that followed blazed a path through science fiction and fantasy–and thus the dimming of Lessing’s literary star. Reviewing her 1979 novel Shikasta for the New York Review of Books, Gore Vidal suggested in a sarcastic way how low-brow and high-brow she can seem in these non-realist fictions. Lessing, he writes, “is making a continuum all her own somewhere between John Milton and L. Ron Hubbard.” So was she praised and lampooned by the audience that once esteemed her.