LONDON – Doris Lessing emerged from a black cab outside her home in London one day in 2007 and was confronted by a horde of reporters. When told she had won the Nobel Prize, she blinked and retorted “I couldn’t care less.”
That was typical of the independent – and often irascible – author who died Sunday after a long career that included “The Golden Notebook,” a 1962 novel than made her an icon of the women’s movement. Lessing’s books reflected her own improbable journey across the former British Empire, and later her vision of a future ravaged by atomic warfare.
The exact cause of Lessing’s death at her home in London was not immediately disclosed, and her family requested privacy. She was 94.
“Even in very old age she was always intellectually restless, reinventing herself, curious about the changing world around us, always completely inspirational,” her editor at HarperCollins, Nicholas Pearson, said in one of the many tributes.
Lessing explored topics ranging from colonial Africa to dystopian Britain, from the mystery of being female to the unknown worlds of science fiction. In winning the Nobel literature prize, the Swedish Academy praised Lessing for her “skepticism, fire and visionary power.”
The often-polarizing Lessing never saved her fire for the page. The targets of her vocal ire in recent years included former President George W. Bush – “a world calamity” – and modern women – “smug, self-righteous.” She also raised hackles by deeming the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States “not that terrible.”
She remains best known for “The Golden Notebook,” in which heroine Anna Wulf uses four notebooks to bring together the separate parts of her disintegrating life.
Published in Britain in 1962, the book did not make it to France or Germany for 14 years because it was considered too inflammatory. When it was republished in China in 1993, 80,000 copies sold out in two days.
Lessing was 88 when she won the Nobel literature prize, making her the oldest recipient of the award.
“This is pure political correctness,” American literary critic Harold Bloom said in 2007 after Lessing won the Nobel Prize. “Although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable ... fourth-rate science fiction.”
While Lessing defended her turn to science fiction as a way to explore “social fiction,” she, too, was dismissive of the Nobel honor.
After emerging from a London black cab, groceries in hand, that day in 2007, she said:
“I can’t say I’m overwhelmed with surprise,” Lessing said. “I’m 88 years old and they can’t give the Nobel to someone who’s dead, so I think they were probably thinking they’d probably better give it to me now before I’ve popped off.”
As the international media surrounded her in her garden, she brightened when a reporter asked whether the Nobel would generate interest in her work.
“I’m very pleased if I get some new readers,” she said. “Yes, that’s very nice, I hadn’t thought of that.”
Born Doris May Tayler on Oct. 22, 1919, in Persia (now Iran), where her father was a bank manager, Lessing moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) aged 5 and lived there until she was 29.
Strong-willed from the start, she read works by Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling by age 10 and lived by the motto, “I will not.” Educated at a Roman Catholic girls school in Salisbury (now Harare), she left before finishing high school.
At 19, she married her first husband, Frank Wisdom, with whom she had a son and a daughter. She left that family in her early 20s and became drawn into the Left Book Club, a group of literary communists and socialists headed by Gottfried Lessing, the man who would become her second husband and father her third child.
But Lessing became disillusioned with the communist movement and in 1949, at 30, left her second husband to move to Britain. Along with her young son, Peter, she packed the manuscript of her first novel, “The Grass is Singing.” The novel, which used the story of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage to portray poverty and racism in Southern Rhodesia, was published in 1950 to great success in Europe and the United States.
Lessing then embarked on the first of five deeply autobiographical novels – from “Martha Quest” to “The Four-Gated City” – works that became her “Children of Violence” series.
Her nonfiction work ranged from “Going Home” in 1957, about her return to Southern Rhodesia, to “Particularly Cats,” a book about her pets, published in 1967.
In the 1950s, Lessing became an honorary member of a writers’ group known as the Angry Young Men who were seen as injecting a radical new energy into British culture. Her home in London became a center not only for novelists, playwrights and critics but also for drifters and loners.
Lessing herself denied being a feminist and said she was not conscious of writing anything particularly inflammatory when she produced “The Golden Notebook.”
Lessing’s early novels decried the dispossession of black Africans by white colonials and criticized South Africa’s apartheid system, prompting the governments of Southern Rhodesia and South Africa to bar her in 1956.
Later governments overturned that order. In June 1995, the same year that she received an honorary degree from Harvard University, she returned to South Africa to see her daughter and grandchildren.
In Britain, Lessing won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1954, and was made a Companion of Honor in 1999. That honor came after she turned down the chance to become a Dame of the British Empire – on the ground that there was no such thing as the British Empire at the time.
Lessing often presented women – herself included – as vain and territorial, and insisted in the introduction for a 1993 reissue that “The Golden Notebook” was not a “trumpet for women’s liberation.”
“I think a lot of romanticizing has gone on with the women’s movement,” she told The Associated Press in a 2006 interview. “Whatever type of behavior women are coming up with, it’s claimed as a victory for feminism – doesn’t matter how bad it is. We don’t seem to go in very much for self-criticism.”
But what about that day with the press camped on her door – a video of which was copied and widely displayed by Twitter followers noting her passing in sadness. Was she really dismissive of the Nobel? Her editor, Pearson, said her reaction corresponded with her personality.
“That was typical Doris. She took things in their stride,” he said. “I think she was delighted.”
She is survived by her daughter Jean and granddaughters Anna and Susannah.