Lessing wins Nobel Prize for literature

87-year-old novelist who lives in London becomes 11th woman to receive honor

October 12, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

Doris Lessing, the Persian-born, Rhodesian-raised and London-residing novelist whose deeply autobiographical writing has swept across continents and reflects her engagement with the social and political issues of her time, yesterday won the 2007 Nobel Prize for literature.

Announcing the award in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy described her as "that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny." The award comes with a 10 million Swedish crown honorarium, about $1.6 million.

Lessing, who turns 88 this month, never finished high school and largely educated herself through voracious reading. She has written dozens of books of fiction, as well as plays, nonfiction and two volumes of autobiography. She is the 11th woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

Lessing learned of the news from a group of reporters camped on her doorstep as she returned from a visit to the hospital with her son. "I was a bit surprised because I had forgotten about it actually," she said. "My name has been on the short list for such a long time."

As the persistent sound of her ringing phone came from inside the house, Lessing said that on second thought, she was not as surprised, "because this has been going on for something like 40 years," referring to the number of times she has been mentioned as a likely honoree. "Either they were going to give it to me sometime before I popped off or not at all."

After a few moments, Lessing, who is stout, sharp and a bit hard of hearing, excused herself to go inside. "Now I'm going to go in to answer my telephone," she said. "I swear I'm going upstairs to find some suitable sentences, which I will be using from now on."

Although 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 Sir Harold Pinter of Britain, whose views on political situations led commentators to suspect that the Swedish Academy was choosing its winners in part for nonliterary reasons.

Lessing's strongest legacy might be that she inspired a generation of feminists with her breakthrough novel, The Golden Notebook. In its citation, the Swedish Academy said: "The burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work, and it belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship."

Lessing wrote candidly about the inner lives of women and rejected the notion that they should limit their lives to marriage and children. The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, tracked the story of Anna Wulf, a woman who wanted to live freely and was, in some ways, Lessing's alter ego.

Because she frankly described anger and aggression in women, she was attacked as "unfeminine." In response, Lessing wrote, "Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing came as a great surprise."

Although she has been held up as an early heroine of feminism, Lessing later denied she was a feminist, for which she received the ire of some British critics and academics.

Lessing was born Doris May Tayler in 1919 in what is now Iran. Her father was a bank clerk, and her mother was trained as a nurse. Lured by the promise of farming riches, the family moved to what is now Zimbabwe, where Lessing had what she has called a painful childhood.

She left home when she was 15, and in 1937 she moved to Salisbury (now Harare), the capital, where she took jobs as a telephone operator and nursemaid. She married at 19 and had two children. A few years later, feeling imprisoned, she abandoned her family. She later married Gottfried Lessing, a central member of the left-wing Left Book Club, and they had a son.

Lessing, who joined the Communist Party in Africa, repudiated Marxist theory during the Hungarian crisis of 1956, a view for which she was criticized by some British academics.

When she divorced Gottfried Lessing, she and her young son, Peter, moved to London, where she began her literary career. Her debut novel, published in 1950, was The Grass Is Singing, which chronicled the relationship between a white farmer's wife and her black servant. In her earliest work, Lessing drew upon her childhood experiences in colonial Rhodesia to write about the collision of white and black cultures and racial injustice.

Because of her outspoken views, the governments of Southern Rhodesia and South Africa declared her a "prohibited alien" in 1956.

When The Golden Notebook was first published in the United States, Lessing was unknown. Robert Gottlieb, then her editor at Simon & Schuster and later at Alfred A. Knopf, said it sold only 6,000 copies. "But they were the right 6,000 copies," Gottlieb said by telephone from his home in New York. "The people who read it were galvanized by it, and it made her a famous writer in America."

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