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The World

Lessing an unlikely Nobelist

Famously contrarian, the British author defies genres and categories, but is best known for exploring women's lives.

October 12, 2007|Josh Getlin | Kim Murphy and Times Staff Writers

LONDON — Doris Lessing, an outspoken writer whose work has probed the inner lives of women and condemned political injustice in Africa, on Thursday became the 11th woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and the oldest winner ever.

But while the 87-year-old novelist was hailed as an "epicist of the female experience," she has also been a perennial outsider with a tough contrarian streak, an unconventional stylist who has won praise from some -- and offended others -- with her fierce independence and often harshly strident rhetoric.

Lessing, who is best known for her trailblazing 1962 novel "The Golden Notebook," has explored human psychological experience and "subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny," the Swedish Academy said in its award statement.

Though Lessing's writings have been an inspiration to feminists around the world, she has gone out of her way to say that her heavily autobiographical stories should not be read as political tracts. She has prided herself on being an author who resists associations with ideologies, political movements and anything else that might threaten her creative independence.

In "The Golden Notebook," Lessing told the story of Anna Wulf -- a modern, independent woman -- through the literary device of examining her multiple selves. The feminist movement in the United States and Europe embraced it as a pioneering work that now belongs "to the handful of works that informed the 20th century view of the male-female relationship," the academy said.

Yet the author later distanced herself politically from feminists. At another juncture in her life, she renounced earlier ties with communist organizations. Ever the skeptic, Lessing initially indicated Thursday that winning the Nobel Prize meant little to her. She noted dryly to reporters here that she was groping for some "uplifting words," adding that the prize "doesn't mean anything artistically."

Lessing has written more than 20 novels, as well as short stories, poetry, plays, two operas (with composer Philip Glass) nonfiction and two volumes of an autobiography. Her latest novel, "The Cleft," was published this summer by HarperCollins.

Lessing, who grew up in Africa and now lives in London, has been a literary outsider for much of her career. Yet she is considered less overtly political than two other recent winners of the Nobel Prize -- British playwright Harold Pinter, a critic of U.S. foreign policy who won in 2005, and last year's winner, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who has protested conditions in his country. The academy has faced criticism in recent years that it bestowed the prize more for political than for literary reasons.

The literary world reacted with a mixture of praise and skepticism to the news. Many acknowledged Lessing's impact, as well as the controversy surrounding her work. Others gave her grudging praise for "The Golden Notebook" but said they hadn't read her works in years and questioned their continuing relevance. But the award delighted others, including American novelist Jane Smiley.

"I was more moved than I would have expected to be -- when I found out, I teared up," Smiley said in an e-mail interview. "One of my favorite books in my 20s was 'The Golden Notebook.' The great thing about Lessing is that she is always so direct -- sometimes her directness is startling or off-putting, but when you get used to it, it is wonderfully invigorating, and to me when I was just starting out, it showed that, really, a woman could write about anything."

Jonathan Clowes, Lessing's longtime literary agent, issued a brief statement after the award was announced, saying, "We are absolutely delighted, and it's very well-deserved." He said Lessing had not been told of the honor in the hours after the announcement because she was out shopping, according to the Associated Press.

When she returned, the author was confronted by a clutch of reporters outside her home in northwest London. She had to sit for a moment on the steps of her home to digest the news. But she took it with characteristic aplomb. "This has been going on for 30 years. I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I'm delighted to win them all. It's a royal flush."

Later, during an interview on Radio 4's "The World at One" program, she commented on her career and the Nobel Prize: "They can't give a Nobel to someone who's dead, so I guess they were thinking they'd better give it to me now before I popped off. This is the way I'm thinking."

Asked whether she thought it was about time for a tribute to her work as a writer, Lessing said, "Well, a lot of people think so. You know, it's about 40 years since they sent one of their minions specially to tell me they didn't like me at the Nobel Prize and I'd never get it. I never asked for it, you see. So this struck me as very bad manners, actually. So now they've decided they're going to give it to me. So, why? Why do they like me any better now than they did then? It's a query for someone."

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