October 11, 2007
Doris Lessing Wins Nobel Prize in Literature
By MOTOKO RICH and SARAH LYALL
Doris Lessing, the Persian-born, Rhodesian-raised and London-residing novelist whose deeply autobiographical writing has swept across continents and reflects her deep feminist engagement with the major social and political issues, won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature today.
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 her voracious reading. She had been born to British parents in what is now Iran, was raised in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and now lives in London. She has written dozens of books of fiction, as well as plays, non-fiction and an autobiography. She is the 11th woman to win a Nobel Prize in literature.
Ms. Lessing learned the news from a group of reporters camped on her doorstep as she returned home from visiting her son in the hospital. She declared herself totally surprised.
“I had forgotten about it, actually,” she said. “My name has been on the short list for such a long time.”
On second thought, she said, perhaps she was not entirely surprised, because “this has been going on for something like 40 years,” a reference to the many years when she had been named as a potential honoree. “You can’t go on getting excited every year about this,” she said. “There are limits to getting excited finally.”
Short, stout and a bit hard of hearing, Ms. Lessing was sharp and straightforward in her comments. After a few moments, she excused herself and went 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 holds fiercely political views, she is unlikely to be as controversial as the previous two winners, Orhan Pamuk of Turkey and 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 depicted female anger and aggression, she was attacked as “unfeminine.” In response, Ms. Lessing wrote: “Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing came as a great surprise.”
Ms. Lessing debuted with the novel “The Grass is Singing” in 1950, 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 clash of white and African cultures and racial injustice. She criticized the white colonialists for a sterile culture and for dispossessing the native black citizens.
Because of her outspoken views, the governments of both Southern Rhodesia and South Africa declared her a “prohibited alien” in 1956.
Ms. Lessing was born Doris May Tayler in 1919 in what was then known as Persia. Her father was a bank clerk and her mother was 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 ran away from home when she was 15 and never finished high school, educating herself through reading. In 1937 she moved to Salisbury in Rhodesia, married and had two children. A few years later, she felt trapped, and left her family. She later married Gottfried Lessing, a central member of the Left Book Club, a communist organization.
Her other novels include “The Good Terrorist” and “Love Again.” Her latest novel is “The Cleft,” published by HarperCollins in July.
Motoko Rich reported from Frankfurt and Sarah Lyall from London.