Thursday, October 18, 2007
'Oh Christ': Doris Lessing on winning the Nobel
The footage of Doris Lessing finding out she won the Nobel Prize for Literature is comedy gold.
Eighty-seven-year-old Lessing climbs out of a cab and blinks at the swarm of cameramen on her doorstep.
‘Are you photographing something?’
‘We’re photographing you, have you heard the news?’
‘You’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature.’
She closes her eyes for a second, then looks up, seemingly exasperated. She waves a dismissive hand at the camera.
‘So, how are you feeling?’
‘Well, it’s been going on for 30 years now, so one could get more excited about it.’
She turns and walks back towards the cab, getting on with the business of paying the driver.
Her son emerges, a large, shabby man in a plaid shirt and wire-frame glasses. He holds an artichoke in one arm, which is bandaged and in a sling; a clutch of onions in the other.
‘What’s going on?’
Someone tells him. He smiles and says, ‘Well, a certain professor must have died.’
Lessing later says that she has been on the shortlist for the prize for decades. It’s about whether they like you or they don’t, she says. ‘They didn’t like me and now obviously they do.’ She had been told (by ‘a certain professor’, I presume) that she would never win it.
Still, she doesn’t seem particularly fussed now that she has.
As her son pauses in front of the camera, Lessing sighs again and faces the clutch of reporters with a resigned, faintly annoyed, air.
‘Right, well I suppose you’d like me to say something uplifting.’
‘You can say whatever you like.’
‘Well, as I say, this has been going for 30 years, so one could get more excited than one does.’
An American-accented reporter instructs her on what an important prize this is (‘it’s a recognition of your life’s work’), fishing for something more, for the missing excitement. As he rattles on, she watches him with a mixture of annoyance and amusement.
‘Well, there you are,’ she says. ‘You’re saying it all for me. Congratulations.’
And off she goes, heading for the house.
A BBC radio reporter takes her hand to help her onto the pavement, taking the opportunity to ask her if she’ll give him an interview in five minutes.
‘I’m trying to think of something suitable to say,’ she sighs. ‘I tell you what, you tell me what to say and I’ll say it.’ As they are negotiating a doorstep interview, the American reporter interrupts, asking for one last question. Once again, he wants to know what this means to her.
‘Look, I’ve won all the prizes in Europe. Every bloody one. So I’m delighted to win them all, it’s the whole lot, okay.’ She turns and finally walks towards her front door, where she turns back and waves a disdainful hand at him again. ‘It’s a royal flush.’
Doris Lessing is best known for her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook.
The Swedish academy who awarded the prize wrote: ‘The burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work, and it belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship.’
Much of Lessing’s work is autobiographical, and this is no exception. It tells the story of Anna Wulf, a writer who longs to live freely, and to achieve more than just a husband and children.
Of course, Lessing herself has stated that the book is not a feminist work, and has criticised the women’s movement for focussing too much on the sexual revolution over issues like equal rights and equal pay.
Lessing, who was born in Persia (now Iran) is also well known for her writing about racial injustice in post-colonial Africa. She grew up in what is now Zimbabwe, and moved on her own to Southern Rhodesia aged 15, where she lived until she divorced her second husband and moved to London with her son from that marriage (she had two other children from her first marriage, aged 19).
Her first novel, The Grass is Singing, is about the relationship between a married white 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,’ writes The Guardian.
She continued the themes of racial injustice and women’s right (and desire) to live their own lives outside the domestic sphere in her ‘Children of Violence’ series, best known as the Martha Quest books. The series spans the twentieth century, ending with an imagined third world war.
More recently, Lessing has been writing science fiction novels. Her two volumes of memoir were critically acclaimed. A third volume was planned, but she has said that she ‘can’t be bothered’ to finish it now and that she doesn’t want to remind certain people of ‘their silliness’.
One person she might think silly is Harold Bloom, the one dissenting voice amidst the otherwise wide acclaim for her win.
After describing the decision as ‘pure political correctness’, he went on to say ‘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.’
I imagine Doris Lessing waving him off with a fly-swatting hand gesture and getting on with her life quite undisturbed – and definitely unexcited.