Doris Lessing Wins Nobel Prize in Literature
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, on Thursday 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.
Ms. Lessing, who turns 88 later 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 her autobiography. She is the 11th woman to win a Nobel Prize in literature.
Ms. Lessing learned of the news from a group of reporters camped on her doorstep as she returned from visiting her son in the hospital. “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 phone ringing came from inside the house, Ms. 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 on the short list for the Nobel. “Either they were going to give it to me sometime before I popped off or not at all.”
Stout, sharp and a bit hard of hearing, after a few moments Ms. Lessing 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 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 on current political situations led commentators to suspect that the Swedish Academy was choosing its winners in part for nonliterary reasons.
Ms. Lessing’s strongest legacy may 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.”
Ms. Lessing wrote candidly about the inner lives of women and rejected the notion that they should abandon their own 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 Ms. Lessing’s alter-ego.
Because she frankly described anger and aggression in women, she was attacked as “unfeminine.” In response, Ms. Lessing wrote: “Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing came as a great surprise.”
Although she has been held up as an early feminist icon, Ms. Lessing later disavowed that she herself was a feminist, earning the ire of some British critics and academics.
Clare Hanson, professor of 20th century literature at the University of Southampton in Britain and a keynote speaker at the second international Doris Lessing Conference this past July, said: “She’s been ahead of her time, prescient and thoughtful, immensely wide-ranging.”
Ms. Lessing was born Doris May Tayler in 1919 in what was then known as Persia (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 Rhodesia where Ms. Lessing had what she has described as a painful childhood.
She left home when she was 15 and in 1937, she moved to Salisbury (now Harare) in Southern Rhodesia, where she took jobs as a telephone operator and nursemaid. At 19, she married 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 Book Club, a left wing organization, and they had a son together.
Ms. Lessing, who joined the Communist Party in Africa, dropped out of the party in 1954 and repudiated Marxist theory during the Hungarian crisis of 1956, a view for which she was criticized by some British academics.
When she divorced Mr. Lessing, she and her young son moved to London, where she began her literary career. She debuted with the novel “The Grass is Singing” in 1949, chronicling the relationship between a white farmer’s wife and her black servant. In her earliest work, Ms. Lessing drew upon her childhood experiences in colonial Rhodesia to write about the collision of white and African cultures and racial injustice.
Because of her outspoken views, the governments of both Southern Rhodesia and South Africa declared her a “prohibited alien” in 1956.
When “The Golden Notebook” was first published in the United States, Ms. Lessing was still 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,” Mr. 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.”
Speaking from Frankfurt during the annual international book fair, Jane Friedman, president and chief executive of HarperCollins, which has published Ms. Lessing in the U.S. and Britain for the last 20 years, said that “for women and for literature, Doris Lessing is a mother to us all.”
Ms. Lessing’s other novels include “The Good Terrorist” and “Martha Quest.” Her latest novel is “The Cleft,” published by HarperCollins in July. She has dabbled in science fiction and some of her later works bear the imprint of her interest in Sufi mysticism, which she has interpreted as stressing a link between individual fates and the fate of society.
In a review of “Under My Skin,” the first volume of Ms. Lessing’s autobiography, Janet Burroway, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said: “Mrs. Lessing is a writer for whom the idea that ‘the personal is the political’ is neither sterile nor strident; for her, it is an integrated vision.”
On her doorstep, Ms. Lessing said she was still writing—“but with difficulty because I have so little time,” referring to the regular visits she is making to the hospital to visit her son.