STOCKHOLM, Sweden – 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. The judges praised her “skepticism, fire and visionary power.”
Lessing, less than two weeks short of her 88th birthday, is the oldest choice ever for a prize that usually goes to authors in their 50s and 60s.
Swedish Academy Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl was not able to reach Lessing before announcing the prize in Stockholm, but reporters waiting outside her brick rowhouse in North London told her she had won as she pulled up in a black cab, two hours later.
“I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I’m delighted to win them all,” said Lessing, whose previous honors include the James Tait Black Memorial Book Prize and the W.H. Smith Literary Award. “It’s a royal flush.”
Later, she told reporters: “I thought you were shooting some kind of television series.”
Novelist Shirley Hazzard, winner of the National Book Award in 2003 for “The Great Fire,” said Thursday’s announcement was a surprise, but a “nice” one. “I admire her writing very much,” Hazzard said. “Her intention is not to amuse. She’s a serious writer who deals with thing she feels very, very strongly about.”
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 said.
A largely self-taught author who ended formal schooling in her teens, 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.
Like other recent Nobel winners, Lessing has a history of political controversy. Because of her criticism of 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.