'Scepticism, fire and visionary power': Lessing wins the Nobel literature prize

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Doris Lessing, the prolific and path-finding novelist whose writing has for almost six decades captured the inner turmoil and social transformations of a world in flux, has won this year's Nobel Prize in Literature. Announcing its decision in Stockholm yesterday, the Swedish Academy described the 87-year-old, Iranian-born British author as an epic chronicler of female experience "who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny".

Lessing follows Harold Pinter (2005) and V S Naipaul (2001) as the third British Nobel laureate in literature since the millennium. Her surprise award (beating quoted odds of 50-1) confirms the Academy's shift over the past 15 years towards globally celebrated writers, often from the English-speaking world.

The novelist and poet Helen Dunmore welcomed a "fantastic" choice. "It's a recognition of the range and depth of her work – which is hugely enjoyable, but she has also rearranged everyone's mental furniture," she said. To the novelist Michèle Roberts, Lessing's Nobel should inspire writers "to believe that you can get to grips with the very, very complicated world we live in and make pictures of it. And it's great to see a woman writer doing that."

A few days short of her 88th birthday, the oldest winner of the prize herself noted that the Nobel completes her set of major European awards. "I'm delighted to win them all," Lessing said at her home in West Hampstead, London. "It's a royal flush."

It took Lessing years of struggle and experiment to collect her winning hand. Her parents, an invalid bank clerk and a nurse, moved from (then) Persia to Southern Rhodesia in 1925 to farm maize. The African upbringing explored in her 1950 debut The Grass in Singing and through her semi-autobiographical Children of Violence series (1952-1969) introduced her to abiding themes of private anguish and social injustice – and the links between the two.

Shaped both by avid childhood reading, from Dickens and Dostoyevsky to DH Lawrence, and her father's bitter tales of the First World War, she dropped out of school and joined left-wing circles in colonial Salisbury. Married at 19, she had two children but left them and her first husband, Frank Wisdom; she later married a Communist colleague, Gottfried Lessing, with whom she had another child. Mother and son moved to London in 1949.

Lessing moved through and out of Marxist militancy, an engagement charted through her heroine Martha Quest in novels such as A Ripple from the Storm (1958). Dunmore recommends them as "a long and complex journey with the character, but also with the author". Meanwhile, fictional depictions of the colonial racism in Lessing's own background led to her banning from Rhodesia and South Africa as a "prohibited alien".

Then, in 1962, The Golden Notebook thrust her into the front line of the nascent feminist movement. The novel presents its tormented heroine Anna Wulf as a woman driven towards insanity by the contradictory pressures of her role. To the writer Sarah Dunant, the novel is "such an incredible evocation of the madness as well as the power of creativity. She simply went somewhere where I had never been before, and with a fierce, unflinching intelligence."

The interaction of social turmoil and personal suffering drove Lessing's major novels of the 1970s: Briefing for a Descent into Hell, The Summer Before the Dark, and Memoirs of a Survivor, which Roberts loved for a "first-person, down-on-the-ground human sympathy" not always found in Lessing's other work. Then, to the consternation of many admirers, the imagination already evident in these books pushed Lessing into a five-volume science-fiction: Canopus in Argus (1979-1983). Other feminist novelists – from Margaret Atwood to Jeanette Winterson – would later follow, while Lessing's turn towards fable also expressed her immersion in Sufi mysticism. Yet at the time she partly lost one readership without firmly locating another one. To Dunant: "There was a whole lot of us to whom she was a goddess, and when she went extra-terrestrial, we didn't quite know what to do."

The science-fiction novels observe human folly from a distance that led disciples to fear that she had abandoned them when, as Dunant remembers, "we seemed to be fighting a lot of battles here on earth". But for Dunmore, the split between Lessing's naturalistic and fantastic sides may be more apparent than real: "I don't think that there's a hard line at all. She was always a writer who explored the inner world – so good on breakdown, on mental illness, on elation or depression." To Roberts, most of Lessing's novels, realistic or otherwise, are connected by the breadth of their vision: "They're often very similar in narrative perspective, with a lofty, god-like position looking down on humanity."

In any case, Lessing did come back to earth. She published The Diary of a Good Neighbour under the pseudonym of "Jane Somers", to experience the condescension meted out to newcomers. "It was interesting to be a beginning writer again because I found how patronising reviewers can be," she said. Then, with The Good Terrorist in 1985, she roared back into the mainstream with a novel of chaotic revolutionaries and the woman who serves their cause.

Fiercely individual, impatient of all labels and categories, Lessing has always gone her own way. Despite her renown as a pioneer of women's fiction, she later broke ranks with "self-indulgent" feminism, just as she had with Communism. This empathy with the outsider refused all prescriptive limits. Her semi-allegorical novel The Fifth Child (1988) and its sequel, Ben, In The World, focus on a disturbed boy, an alien in his family, and his painful journey towards a kind of peace. The plight of children, and an increasingly "green" concern with the fate of the Earth, fused in the futuristic African landscapes of her epic 1999 novel Mara and Dann, and its 2005 sequel.

Earlier this year, Lessing also published a passionate introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover. She wrote in defence of the writer demonised by many of the very feminists who once lionised her: D H Lawrence. "What we do have from him," she argues, "is a report on the sex war of his time, and no one has done it better."

Except, perhaps, Doris Lessing in her time. And, as with Lawrence, her unblinking dramatisation of conflict, cruelty and devastation extends from sexual and family relationships through the state of politics to the state of the planet. "The furious energy of his talent, his power," she writes on Lawrence, "set him above his contemporaries, on whom he had an extraordinary influence." Change the pronoun and the judgement stands.

The Lessing bookcase

The Grass is Singing (1950)

Influenced by her formative years spent in Southern Rhodesia, this – her first novel – ridicules and pours scorn on the complacency and vulgarity of colonial life in southern Africa.

'Children of Violence' series (1952-69)

Seen as autobiographical and strongly influenced by Lessing's own flirtations with communism and her rejection of the traditional domestic family role. Seen through the eyes of Martha Quest and also set in Africa.

The Golden Notebook (1962)

Widely considered to be Lessing's "breakthrough", this is credited by femin-ists as a key 20th-century work. It revolves around the five notebooks of Anna Wulf, who notes down her thoughts on Africa, politics and communism, sex and politics.

The Good Terrorist (1985)

Alice Mellings is a sympathetic young woman who gets mixed up in a group of young British radicals, who move around London squatting and become entangled in quasi-terrorist activities beyond their own comfort zones, including with the IRA.

The Summer Before the Dark (1973)

Another important, feminist novel about a woman in middle age who sets out to embrace and explore her sexuality, described as a "ruthless study of the collapse of values in middle age".

British winners

2005: Harold Pinter

"Uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms"

2001: VS Naipaul

"United perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories"

1983: William Golding

"Perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today"

1981: Elias Canetti

"Marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas, artistic power"

1953: Winston Churchill

"Mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values"

1950: Bertrand Russell

"Champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought"

1948: TS Eliot

"Outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry"

1932: John Galsworthy

"Distinguished art of narration"

1907: Rudyard Kipling

"Power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterise his creations."