From: The Guardian, London, Thursday 11th Oct
By: Sarah Crown
By: Sarah Crown
The British author Doris Lessing has won the 2007 Nobel prize for literature. Lessing, who is only the 11th woman to win literature's most prestigious prize in its 106-year history, is best known for her 1962 postmodern feminist masterpiece, The Golden Notebook.
Announcing the award, the Swedish Academy described Lessing as an "epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny". It singled out The Golden Notebook for praise, calling it "a pioneering work" that "belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship." Lessing, who was shopping at the time of the Nobel announcement, was typically irreverent in her response to the news. "I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one. I'm delighted to win them all, the whole lot," she said to the reporters gathered outside her home in north London. "It's a royal flush."
Lessing was born in Iran (then Persia) in 1919 to British parents and grew up in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). Self-educated from the age of 15, she moved to England in 1949. In 1950 she published her first novel, The Grass is Singing, an exploration of the relationship between a married white Rhodesian woman and her black houseboy. Her razor-sharp dissection of the fear and power that she saw as underlying the white colonial experience made the book an instant success.
She continued to draw on the experiences of her childhood in her series Children of Violence (1952-1969, better known as the Martha Quest books), which is also set largely in Africa. In these five novels, the themes which would later come to dominate her work come strongly to the fore. The series provides a portrait of the awakening and development of its central character, Martha Quest, over the course of an imagined 20th century which ends with the globe in the grip of a third world war. By combining literary science fiction with a stringent, pioneering brand of feminism, Lessing gave a glimpse of the qualities for which she was to become famous.
After following The Golden Notebook with several other novels dealing with similar themes of social pressure and personal disintegration, Lessing turned her attention to science fiction with her 'Canopus in Argos' series, in which she traces the development and decline of species and societies on the space-age stage. In 1984, irritated by the limitations of writing under her own name, she sent a novel (If the Old Could ...) to her publisher under the pseudonym Jane Somers, and was reportedly delighted when it met with only cursory attention in the press. Her more recent fiction has been punctuated with the two volumes of her critically acclaimed autobiography; a third volume was long believed to be in the offing, but she announced in 2001 that she had finally abandoned it as she did not want to offend so "many great and eminent people by reminding them of their silliness. I just can't be bothered, to be honest".
Her longtime agent, Jonathan Clowes, was "absolutely delighted" at the news of the award, worth £766,000, which was, he said, "very well-deserved". Speaking to Reuters, her editor at Fourth Estate, Nicholas Pearson, called it "thrilling" and claimed that her early books "changed the face of literature through the description of the inner lives of women". Jane Friedman, chief executive of HarperCollins (of which Fourth Estate is a division), described her as "an icon for women".
The veteran US literary critic Harold Bloom has so far provided the only voice of dissent. Describing the academy's decision as "pure political correctness", he said to the Associated Press today that "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."
In recent years, Lessing has certainly moved away from the feminism and social realism for which she was celebrated in the 1960s and 70s, both in ideological and literary terms. Her latest novel, The Cleft (2007), a pre-historical fable which depicts women as slothful and complacent and men as adventurous innovators, was greeted with horror by sections of her fan base, while its critical reception was decidedly mixed. She herself, however, has made no secret of her desire to distance herself from the iconic status she acquired after the publication of The Golden Notebook, which she has described in the past as her "albatross". Her appearance at the 2001 Edinburgh festival, in which she criticised elements of 21st-century feminist culture as "lazy and insidious" and claimed to be "increasingly shocked at the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture", caused uproar.
Just 11 days shy of her 88th birthday, Lessing is now the oldest person to have been awarded the prize - a title previously held by Theodor Mommsen, who was 85 when he won the award in 1902. Lessing's laureateship makes this the second time in three years that the award has gone to a British author, following Harold Pinter's in 2005. The prize was awarded last year to the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk.
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