Doris Lessing, author of dozens of works from short stories to science fiction, including the classic “The Golden Notebook,” won the Nobel Prize for literature Thursday. She was praised by the judges for her “skepticism, fire and visionary power.”
The Swedish academy’s announcement was stunning even by the standards of Nobel judges, who have been known for such surprises as Austria’s Elfriede Jelinek and Italy’s Dario Fo.
Lessing, 11 days short of her 88th birthday, is the oldest choice ever for a prize that usually goes to authors in their 50s and 60s. Although she is widely celebrated for “The Golden Notebook” and other works, she has received little attention in recent years and has been criticized as strident and eccentric.
Even Lessing apparently was not expecting to win, the academy’s permanent secretary Horace Engdahl told The Associated Press.
“I’ve phoned her but there’s been no answer. She was not sitting and waiting for my call,” Engdahl said. “She doesn’t know yet, and I’m afraid she’s out taking a stroll somewhere in the park and people will attack her with the news.”
Lessing’s agent, Jonathan Clowes, said the London-based author was out shopping when the prize was announced.
“We are absolutely delighted and it’s very well deserved,” Clowes said.
‘Pure political correctness’
However, American literary critic Harold Bloom called the academy’s decision “pure political correctness.”
“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 ... fourth-rate science fiction,” Bloom told The Associated Press.
A largely self-taught author who ended formal schooling at age 13, Lessing has drawn heavily from her time living in Africa, exploring the divide between whites and blacks, most notably in 1950’s “The Grass Is Singing,” which examined the relationship between a white farmer’s wife and her black servant. The academy called it “both a tragedy based in love-hatred and study of unbridgeable racial conflicts.”
A prolific author even in her 80s, Lessing was born to British parents who were living in what is now Bakhtaran, Iran. Her many works include short stories, essays and such novels as “The Good Terrorist” and “Martha Quest,” the latter part of her semi-autobiographical “Children Of Violence” series.
But to millions she is known for “The Golden Notebook,” published in 1962 and still a feminist classic although Lessing does not consider the book a political statement.
“The burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work and it belongs to the handful of books that inform the 20th century view of the male-female relationship,” the academy said in its citation announcing the prize.
Lessing was also cited for her “vision of global catastrophe forcing mankind to return to a more primitive life, noting such recent works as “Mara and Dann” and its sequel, “The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog,” published in 2005.
“When you look at my life, you can go back to the late 1930s,” she told the AP in an interview a year ago. “What I saw was, first of all, Hitler, he was going to live forever. Mussolini was in for 10,000 years. You had the Soviet Union, which was, by definition, going to last forever. There was the British empire — nobody imagined it could come to an end. So why should one believe in any kind of permanence?”
Lessing is the second British writer to win the prize since 2005, when Harold Pinter received the award. Last year, the academy gave the prize to Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk.
A seasoned traveler of the world, Lessing has known many homes, from Persia to Zimbabwe to South Africa to London, where she lives on a quiet block in a neighborhood long favored by artists and intellectuals.
Like Pinter, Pamuk and other recent Nobel winners, Lessing has a history of political controversy. Because of her criticism of the South Africa’s former apartheid system, she was prohibited from entering the country between 1956 and 1995. Lessing, a member of the British Communist Party in the 1950s who later rejected leftist ideology, had been active in campaigning against nuclear weapons.
The literature award was the fourth of this year’s Nobel Prizes to be announced. On Wednesday, Gerhard Ertl of Germany won the 2007 Nobel Prize in chemistry for studies of chemical reactions on solid surfaces, which are key to understanding such questions as why the ozone layer is thinning.
Tuesday, France’s Albert Fert and German Peter Gruenberg won the physics award for discovering a phenomenon that enables computers and digital music players store reams of data on ever-shrinking hard disks.
Americans Mario R. Capecchi and Oliver Smithies, and Briton Sir Martin J. Evans, won the medicine award on Monday for groundbreaking discoveries that led to a powerful technique for manipulating mouse genes.
Prizes for peace and economics will be announced through Oct. 15.
The awards — each worth $1.5 million — will be handed out by Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf at a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.