SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, tales of "Trial and Retribution." But first, Doris Lessing had just published what she says will be her final book, just before she turns 89. The British author has attracted many labels in the past six decades: feminist, communist, activist, social commentator, and, as of last year, Nobel Laureate. The only one she says she has consistently acknowledged is writer. I write, she says. This is what I do. Vicki Barker reports from London.
VICKI BARKER: As Doris Lessing nears the end of her own life, she is attempting to make some sense of her beginnings, what was and what could have been.
Unidentified Woman: (Reading) The suns of the long summers at the beginning of the last century promised only peace and plenty, not to mention prosperity and happiness.
BARKER: An actress reads aloud the opening words of "Alfred & Emily," Doris Lessing's latest, and, the author says, her last book.
Unidentified Woman: No one remembered anything like those summer days when the sun always shone. A thousand memoirs and novels averred that this was so, and that is why I may confidently assert that on the Saturday afternoon in August 1902, in the village of Longerfield, it was a splendid afternoon.
BARKER: One decade later, the First World War would shatter that country idyll and exile the two people who would become Lessing's parents.
Mr. BLAKE MORRISON (Author and Literary Critique): I think at the age of nearly 90, Doris Lessing's written a rather remarkable book because it's so experimental.
BARKER: The author and literary critique, Blake Morrison.
Mr. MORRISON: What she's written in "Alfred and Emily" is kind of a double story. She tells one story of her parents, which is completely fictionalized, and then she puts that back-to-back with a story of exactly equal length, which is the truth. But I think what she's actually doing is trying to get you to reflect on which is the more true: the imaginary tale of her parents or the rather grimmer tale of what really happened to them.
BARKER: A gray, drizzly afternoon in the North London house Lessing shares with an invalid son. The sprawling second-floor room is full of books and rugs and untidy piles of paper. Lessing has written often and unsentimentally about the many cats she's adopted over the years. But today she wants to talk about her parents. Her childhood was spent in white-ruled Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Her mother's evening gowns decomposing in trunks in the mud-and-thatch farmhouse, her father's dream of farming dying in the harsh, African sun.
Mr. DORIS LESSING (Author, "Alfred and Emily"): They were badly damaged by World War I, but very bady, and they never got over it. My father actually had a wooden leg and bagged what was then called shell shock, but it is now called - oh, God, what? - post-traumatic disorder or something.
BARKER: Her mother's wounds were less visible but deeper.
Ms. LESSING: She was a woman with a very great deal of ability and talent, which once she'd married my father and landed in Africa, she had nothing to use it on except her children. She was a disastrous mother. I can't imagine what she would say. She had been saying she was devoted, you see. My life is devoted to my children. God help us.
BARKER: Even in the science fiction, which she considers her best work, Lessing's characters always live firmly within and are utterly the products of history. Yet, in the fictionalized half of "Alfred and Emily," Lessing takes the ultimate liberty, imagining a world in which her parents would have been happy. She imagines a century in which the First World War never happened. She gives her father fine sons and the English farm he always wanted. She gives her mother a career and she has them marry other people. So Lessing doesn't just abolish the First World War. She abolishes herself.
Ms. LESSING: So what? I mean, the world can live without me. The thing is this gave me very great pleasure to write this.
BARKER: In a body of more than 40 books, Lessing has returned often to the smothering mother and rebellious daughter. Amidst the cusp of her 10th decade, the author seems finally to have laid that demon to rest.
Ms. LESSING: I think I finally solved it. Finally, I've given her the sort of life she should have had, which doesn't help her at all, but it helps me.
BARKER: Lessing has fractured narratives before, most notably in "The Golden Notebook," hailed as one of the great and most complex novels of the 20th century. In a series of parallel notebooks set in postwar London, novelist and single mother Anna Wolff battles writer's block, leaves the Communist Party, leaves or is left by a series of lovers, tries to reconcile her political, social and sexual selves. It's been called the first feminist novel, a label Lessing herself emphatically disowns.
Ms. LESSING: That's just stupid. I've said it so often. 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.
BARKER: Lessing says the book feels pretty dated now, but in a way, she says, that's the point of all her work.
Ms. LESSING: 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 records. I've written some rather good short stories, and I've written one or two good books. You know, looking at it objectively, I've written one or two good books.
BARKER: A decade ago, Lessing declined Her Majesty's offer to make her a dame of the British Empire because she said there is no British Empire. She has called winning the Nobel Prize for literature a disaster for her writing.
Ms. LESSING: You know, I've met now other Nobel Prize winners, and they all say the same thing. You don't do any work for a year. You just talk.
BARKER: Are you going to write again?
Ms. LESSING: No, I don't think so. I have no energy at all. You know, by the time - I've also got an invalid son who I look after. By the time I deal with his food and his medicines and my medicine and my doctors - do you want a cup of tea?
BARKER: Thank you, no.
Ms. LESSING: I could make you one if you want one. So by the time I've done all that, there's very little left over.
BARKER: And then Doris Lessing smiles.
Ms. LESSING: I have written quite a lot of books. I don't have to write another one, do I?
BARKER: For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.
SIMON: You can read a review of "Alfred and Emily" plus an excerpt from the book on our Web site, npr.org.
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