By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2007
Doris Lessing was out grocery shopping near her home in London yesterday when the Swedish Academy announced she had won the 2007 Nobel Prize in literature. She returned from the store to find a media circus, the wire services reported.
"Oh Christ!" she said, when told about the monumental honor. "I couldn't care less."
"This has been going on for 30 years," Lessing told the journalists. "I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I'm delighted to win them all. It's a royal flush."
Holding an impromptu news conference, the prickly Lessing said, "I can't say I'm overwhelmed with surprise. . . . 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."
Jonathan Burnham of HarperCollins, Lessing's publisher in the United States, was at the Frankfurt Book Fair when the announcement was made. "Doris is one of the most important writers of this generation," he said from Germany. "And as a woman writer, she has broken through boundaries and given inspiration to a whole new generation."
For six decades, British novelist Lessing has written works of fiction that explore the sometimes painful intertwining of the political and the personal.
In awarding her the prize-of-all-writing-prizes, the academy championed Lessing as "that
epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny."
Lessing's work had been of great importance both to other writers and to the broader field of literature, academy secretary Horace Engdahl told Reuters. He said members of the academy had discussed her as a potential laureate for years.
"Now the moment was right. Perhaps we could say that she is one of the most carefully considered decisions in the history of the Nobel Prize," Engdahl told the news service. "She has opened up a new area of experience that earlier had not been very accepted in literature. That has to do with, for instance, female sexuality."
Just a few days shy of her 88th birthday, Lessing has lived on three continents and is largely self-educated. She was born to British parents in Iran, then known as Persia. Her father was a banker, her mother a former nurse. The family later moved to southern Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. At 7, Lessing went to a convent boarding school.
According to the academy's official biography, Lessing quit school at 14 and worked at a parade of jobs, including nanny, stenographer and journalist.
She was married, and divorced, twice. She is the mother of three children -- two of whom were just toddlers when she left their father and gave up raising them to focus on a life of political activism.
In the mid-1950s, Lessing was a member of the Communist Party in London. She actively and outspokenly opposed nuclear weapons and the race-based governments of South Africa and Rhodesia. For years, she was barred from parts of Africa because of her critical writings.
In 1950, she published her first novel, "The Grass Is Singing," the story of love torn apart by race and class. Her most recent work, "The Cleft," is a battle-of-the-sexes tale published this year.
All in all, Lessing has written nearly 50 books. Her best known, perhaps, is "The Golden Notebook," published in 1962, a pioneering book on male-female relations, according to the academy, that helped inspire the burgeoning feminist movement.
Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho said yesterday that Lessing is a writer who is "capable of daring" and who goes "beyond her limits, which makes her one of the best writers of our times."
One of Lessing's long suits "was her piercing social commentary, which was so much a part of her novels, " said Thomas F. Staley, director of the University of Texas research center where Lessing's archives are collected. "It created interest in her work all over the world."
During the 1960s, Staley said, "she was a real cleareyed critic of the world situation as she saw it."
Speaking to the Associated Press, critic Harold Bloom was not so kind. He said the academy's choice is "pure political correctness."
He added: "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."
Critics may bicker, but Lessing has loyal readers. Jan Hanford, who has run DorisLessing.org -- a tribute Web site -- for 12 years, said, "For me, her writing communicates ideas and an understanding of the truth that is both moving and profound. And she is an extraordinary storyteller."