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Lessing an unlikely Nobelist

Times Staff Writers

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.

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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.

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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.”

The prize comes with an honorarium of about $1.5 million. Lessing was amused when asked what she would do with the money. “Don’t worry, a lot of people will be writing to me instantly demanding some of it.”

Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, said that her award “was a big surprise, I think to her as well as to us here.”

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“It’s come very late, hasn’t it? And it has come to someone most of whose ideas are now kind of well past their time. So there’s something strange about it: Communism, feminism are two powerful elements in her thinking, neither of which anyone would say are in their sort of first flush of power.”

Lessing, whose father was a bank clerk and whose mother was a nurse, was born in what is now Iran in 1919; the family later moved to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. She dropped out of high school but read extensively as a child, immersing herself particularly in 19th century novels. The future author was married at age 19 in 1937 but left her husband and two children, feeling trapped in the traditional demands of marriage and motherhood. She later married again and had a son with Gottfried Lessing, who was a member of the Left Book Club, a communist organization.

Lessing was drawn to left-wing politics, but her restlessness as a person and an artist would dominate her life more than any ideology. She divorced and moved with her son in 1949 to London, where her writing career began. She eventually grew disillusioned with the Communist Party, leaving it in 1954.

In her first novel, Lessing voiced anger at white colonialists in Africa and their harsh repression of blacks. Those views eventually led to her being branded a “prohibited alien” by the governments of both Rhodesia and South Africa. It set a pattern in her life: She would be forever stamped as something of a provocateur, someone who never quite fit in, no matter where she lived.

She has continued to speak out on African issues. On Thursday, noting the continuing crisis in Zimbabwe, she said, “Well, it’s a disaster. I care about this country very, very much and it’s going down the drain. People are starving. I mean it’s not rhetorical -- they’re starving. [President Robert] Mugabe is a disaster. They’re dying of AIDS; it’s horrible, and it’s a country that once fed that whole area of Africa. I ring up the only friend I have left there now and get the latest ghastly news every Sunday.”

In her most expansive view of the African question, Lessing wrote “The Children of Violence,” a highly praised series of five novels. The story chronicles the life of Martha Quest, a white African woman who breaks out of a suffocating marriage, plunges into left-wing politics, grows estranged from her white colonial homeland and moves to London, where she turns her back on political activism for a life of introspection.

Lessing could have continued writing this kind of novel, but she refused to be pigeonholed. She raised hackles among some literati for her forays, over the last three decades, into genre-bending science fiction.

In the “Canopus in Argos” novels, which reflect in part her study of Sufi concepts, Lessing told the story of future societies in which forced evolution is carried out on underdeveloped species.

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Lessing is deeply enamored of these later works, yet her most enduring literary influence has been in the exploration of women’s lives in the 20th century. Once, reflecting on the constricted parameters of women’s existence, she wrote: “There is a whole generation of women, and it was as if their lives came to a stop when they had children. Most of them got pretty neurotic, because, I think, of the contrast between what they were told at school they were capable of being and what actually happened to them.”

But she drew the line when it came to mixing politics and literature. In a 1971 introduction to an edition of “The Golden Notebook,” Lessing wrote: “This novel was not a trumpet for Women’s Liberation. It described many female emotions of aggression, hostility, resentment. It put them into print. Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing, came as a great surprise.”

In an interview with the Guardian in late May at this year’s Hay Festival in Wales, Lessing discussed her latest book, “The Cleft,” which imagines a mythical society free from men. She said the idea for the title emerged from a scientific report that suggested that the first humans were female, not male.

“It seemed to be perfectly obvious, it must be so,” she noted. “Women are sort of settled and seated and have a very good relationship with the universe. I don’t think men do. You’re a fairly unsettled lot, still. This is why women tend to be conservative on the whole, and they’re very practical. . . . Men and women are totally different, and it’s no good pretending that we’re not.”

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josh.getlin@latimes.com

kim.murphy@latimes.com

Getlin reported from New York and Murphy from London.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Genre-bender

Doris Lessing’s enormous body of work crosses genres: She’s equally at ease writing realist fiction about Africa or postwar London or about life on other planets. The following selection from her oeuvre gives a sense of the scope of her interests over a writing career of more than 50 years:

“The Grass Is Singing” (1950)

“The Children of Violence”

sequence:

* “Martha Quest” (1952)

* “A Proper Marriage” (1954)

* “A Ripple From the Storm” (1958)

* “Landlocked” (1965)

* “The Four-Gated City” (1969)

“The Golden Notebook” (1962)

“Briefing for a Descent Into Hell” (1971)

“The Memoirs of a Survivor” (1974)

The science fiction series known as “Canopus in Argos: Archives":

* “Shikasta” (1979)

* “The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five” (1980)

* “The Sirian Experiments” (1981)

* “The Making of the Representative for Planet 8" (1982)

* “Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire” (1983)

“The Diary of a Good Neighbor” (1983)

“If the Old Could” (1984)

“The Good Terrorist” (1985)

“The Fifth Child” (1988)

“Mara and Dann” (1999)

“Ben, in the World” (2000)

“The Sweetest Dream” (2001)

“The Grandmothers” (2003)

“The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog” (2005)

“The Cleft” (2007)

Short stories

“This Was the Old Chief’s Country” (1951)

“African Stories” (1964)

Autobiographical

“Going Home” (1957)

“In Pursuit of the English” (1960)

“Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949" (1994)

“Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949 to 1962" (1997)

Source: Times reporting

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EXCERPTS

From ‘A Love Child,’ one of four novellas in ‘The Grandmothers’ (2003)

Then, at last, the ship that was blistering with heat, its camouflage paint fading, was sliding towards Freetown, and every soul on board listened for the thud of a torpedo. But they made it, they got safely in. The soldiers were not granted shore leave, but they watched batches of officers going ashore, borne by bare-footed blacks in clothes not far off rags. Water. Inexhaustible water from the taps and in barrels standing on the deck. They drank, could not stop drinking, and some, trying not to be seen, poured this fresh water over their heads, or their sore and blistering bodies, and, particularly, hot and inflamed crotches that did not like sea water at all. Two days in Freetown . . . . And now they would run the gauntlet again: they were leaving Freetown and would be on their last leg, the thousands of miles still to go, to Cape Town.

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From ‘Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949' (1994)

I have been writing of the tactile and sensuous subjective experience of a child, smelly, noisy, the rumble of a mother’s stomach as she reads to you, the bubbling dottle in Daddy’s pipe, the pounding of blood in your ears -- all the din and stink and smother of life which a child soon learns to shut out, if she is not to be overwhelmed by it. But all that -- and the battle for survival -- went on side by side with what was being provided intelligently and competently by my mother, the daughter of John William, who had taught her what a good parent must provide for a child. She was taught to admire Darwin and Brunel, and to be proud of Britain’s role as the great exemplar of progress. She was taught to take herself off to museums and to use libraries.

And in Tehran, she made sure her children experienced what they should. I was held high through the same velvet curtains to see the night sky. “Moon, moon” -- lisped attractively, for my mother as she reported this became a winsome little girl. “Starth, starth” -- she said I said. When it snowed -- for it certainly snows heavily there, in Tehran, and I can see any time I want to the sheets of sparkling white over shrubs and walls -- my mother built snowmen, with eyes of coal and noses of carrots, and cats of snow with green stone eyes. She was good at it, and made them well, and taught us how to say nose, and eyes, and paws and whiskers in French.


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