LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's Doris Lessing, too ill to attend an award ceremony last year, received the Nobel prize for literature on Wednesday saying there was no higher accolade for a writer except, perhaps, "a pat on the head from the Pope."
The frail-looking 88-year-old, wearing a long red velvet dress and her silver hair pulled back from her face, was typically irreverent at a champagne reception in the main gallery of the Wallace Collection in central London.
"It is astonishing and amazing," the 2007 winner said in a short acceptance speech after being handed a Nobel medal by Swedish ambassador Staffan Carlsson.
"But I would like to say that there isn't anywhere to go from here, is there, unless, like some exemplars, recent ones, I could get a pat on the head from the Pope."
Lessing did not say who she was referring to, although former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who she described in a recent interview as "a disaster for Britain," had talks with the Pope last year ahead of his conversion to Catholicism.
She also described her fantasy of reaching heaven, only to be told by Peter, the Christian apostle often portrayed as the keeper of the gates:
"Doris, you know that you are there simply because you are standing in for all the other writers who work so hard and who don't get prizes?"
Her dream is interrupted by her father, who says: "You're getting a bit above yourself, my girl, and we don't like it."
Victoria Barnsley, head of Lessing's British publisher HarperCollins UK, told the audience that Lessing's next book would be published in May.
Lessing has described it as an anti-war book about her parents whose lives were irrevocably damaged by World War One.
Asked if receiving the Nobel prize had changed her life, Lessing told Reuters: "My son Peter said, 'It's very strange ... here you are, been working away, working away and suddenly people notice you.' This is the thing in a nutshell, isn't it?"
Lessing, who was once told by an official connected with the Nobel prize that she would never win the award, was unable to travel to Sweden last year due to back problems.
At the reception, actress Juliet Stevenson and actor Alan Rickman read extracts from Lessing's work and HarperCollins announced it would donate 10,000 books to schools in Zimbabwe.
Lessing addressed the lack of teaching resources in Zimbabwe in an acceptance speech delivered on her behalf last year.
Carlsson said of the Nobel laureate: "Dear Doris Lessing, age is no issue in literature. You are forever young and wise, old and rebellious. Your bout with destiny and reality is heavyweight class...nothing has induced you to leave the ring."
Lessing was born to British parents in what is now Iran on October 22, 1919, and in 1925 her family moved to what is now Zimbabwe. She spent time in a Catholic convent before attending a girls school from which she dropped out.
She left home, married and divorced twice and had three children, and in 1950, the year after she moved to London, published her first novel "The Grass Is Singing."
Her breakthrough came with the tale "The Golden Notebook," published in 1962, depicting female anger and aggression through its narrator and hailed by the feminist movement.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Lessing turned to science fiction with the "Canopus in Argos" series before returning to realist fiction, and in the 1990s she wrote two volumes of her autobiography. Her latest novel was last year's "The Cleft."
Editing by Philippa Fletcher