The Memoirs of a Survivor
by Doris Lessing
Knopf, 213 pp., $6.95
The Grass Is Singing
by Doris Lessing
Crowell, 288 pp., $7.95
Since her first novel, brought over in manuscript from South Africa and running into six editions, Doris Lessing has written prolifically in a variety of manners, though not always better than in that first African story, Wit, grace, conciseness have never been her strong points; but she has shown a remarkable alertness to current and about-to-be-current concerns, and incorporated them into her books: a communist and then an ex-communist, a feminist before it was obligatory to be one, a radical Laingian in her view of psychological health and ill-health, and at present in favor with the “counterculture” because of her interest in mystical and extrasensory states of consciousness.
In all these concerns she has been shrewd, compassionate, and essentially consistent; she has explicitly wanted to mirror the times she has lived through and she has done so—though all this, of course, is not identical with art or the writing of good novels. Leaden dialogue, faceless characters, and the grinding of worthy ideological axes have all occasionally marred the slacker novels that followed the first. The short stories have necessarily kept more shape and vitality: she wrote one about a dog in Africa that was cool, beautiful, and (like the dog) free of any ulterior concerns. Skilled, conscientious, her writing can sometimes give illumination, and when that fails she describes that illumination, and tells us what a good thing it is. Perhaps some of our novelists will be seen to be victims of their chosen form, as Victorian artists of the academic painting? One slice of life is enough; a plateful too much.
The phantasmagorical, science-fiction element that has crept into Doris Lessing’s recent work is therefore, I think, a gain for her. The very flatfootedness of her style becomes an asset in embodying a strange or exotic theme; she is at her best when her narrative realism is used in the service of an imaginative vision. The themes in this new novel are not quite so bold or complex as those of Briefing for a Descent into Hell: the idea of breakdown, both of mechanized Western culture and of adult, mechanical personality, is familiar and very close to us.
The Memoirs of a Survivor extends two parallel metaphors for these, drawing them closer and closer as the book accelerates toward its end. On the one hand is the world of outside, of society, the City metaphor: a decaying and threatened city some time in the near future, public services cut off, air poisoned, looted buildings standing empty. Normality continues its crazy, straight-faced ritual of government announcements, newspapers, appearances maintained; meanwhile people grow a few potatoes here and there on vacant lots, stew weeds for soup; firewood is scavenged for heating and cooking; anachronistic electrical gadgets traded in for a bowl or a broom. Only the young people, impatient of their elders, take the situation for granted and cope with it, some by traveling in predatory gangs like nomad hunters and others more public-spiritedly organizing barter, supplies, and the care of the younger children.
The descriptions in this part of the book have an energy and ingenuity reminiscent of Defoe. The unnamed narrator’s foster-daughter, Emily, takes her to a scene where the young ones are happily at home: here all the useless gadgets of civilization are brought to be stripped, recycled, or exchanged. Children sort piles of goods, guarded by boys with guns; deals are made, loaded trolleys pushed to and fro; herb tea and bread are sold from a little stall; and surrounded by breathless crowds, a few elderly survivors ply precious skills—mending old watches, grinding knives, fitting lenses into spectacle frames. The author has created a kind of African market place in the ruins. Yet over it hovers a blur, like a close network of tiny, fatal cracks.
This all strikes home: she has tapped a communal nightmare of decay that we instantly understand. The imagination catches a subterranean whiff of the ghetto before the holocaust, of an occupied city, or one waiting for invasion—a distillation of twentieth-century terror. The effect lingers on, and the nonfictional city outside one’s own front door seems curiously fragile and sinister.
Parallel to this narrative and this metaphor runs another one: while the outer, consensual world is the City, the inner one is the House, the narrator’s beleaguered apartment. Outside, the streets disintegrate; the vitality is all inside, increasing in step with the decay round it. The walls of the apartment, as a symbol of the dream dimension that interpenetrates waking life, sometimes dissolve and reveal another set of rooms and scenes; though as in a fairy tale, the special spot that opens them, the piece of pattern on the wallpaper, is always impossible to find the next day. A sequence of dream images, each evolving from some event in the main narrative, appears in this other half of the house and forms the second thread of the story: at times the rooms behind the walls are full of growing plants, at times emptied, or mysteriously damaged, or full of dirt that won’t be swept away; sometimes they open into scenes from Emily’s early childhood, as simultaneously she is growing into adulthood on the daytime side of the wall. One of the Emilys stays trapped behind the wall; only her crying is heard.
Emily is the third thread, and links the other two. Mrs. Lessing has called the book an autobiography: this foster child, billeted on the narrator without explanation, is then her own younger self whom she must observe and cherish. The theme of two women looking after each other is a recurring one in her books, and there is somewhat tiresomely too much of it here, in Emily’s moods, Emily’s clothes, her budding womanhood, and so forth. Meanwhile the dovetailing of the journey backward in time, as the city regresses to anarchy and the dream-Emily to babyhood, and forward in time with the narrator and the growing-up Emily, is carried precariously to its close.
It is an ambitious and difficult feat: to dissolve the barriers between literal and imaginative fact in a way that we recognize to be right requires a very delicate touch. The ending, with Emily and a train of other figures stepping through the dissolving walls of the house into another world, is a little shaky, somewhat reminiscent of a Technicolor fade-out into the sunset. The death of one self, the birth of a new, may be the gloss, but it is a little theoretical. The book’s method raises a doubt, too, about the literal transcription of dreams into fiction, and the relationship between these two different modes of imagining. The rooms behind the wall have the recognizable feeling of a real dream series, in which an image recurs repeatedly in changing settings: the author even makes the conventional Jungian distinction between the personal and the archetypal dream dimensions. Yet a question remains whether dreams can be lifted wholesale from the night into fiction; should they not be redreamed into their fictional form?
The image that most holds the book together is that of the disintegrating city—a powerful image that has attracted other artists before. And attracted Mrs. Lessing before: sometimes, as in The Summer Before the Dark, in the shape of a breakdown of conventional, “civilized” behavior; or, in The Four-Gated City, of the dying city’s mirror image, the paradisal, archetypally beautiful lost city. Especially close in theme to The Memoirs of a Survivor is the fragment appended to the end of the latter book, in the guise of a final letter from the Martha Quest whose life is the framework of the “Children of Violence” novel sequence. It too is set in an all-too-probable future, and describes with frightening sharpness the flight of a few survivors of nuclear disaster to a remote Scottish island and their subsequent life: the clothes made from salvaged blankets, the food got and prepared with Stone Age tools, the radiation-deformed fish washed up on the beaches. With her gift for combining prophecy and prosaic detail, she has done well to re-create and expand this landscape.
Closest of all in feeling to this latest novel is Doris Lessing’s first and admired one, The Grass Is Singing; perhaps—though it is too early to get a clear perspective—these two may come to be considered her best. An immense amount of intelligent and original response to current events has gone into the work she has done since the first book, but—except in the short stories—without quite the same emotional unity and force. The book stands up excellently to rereading: it spells out the slow disintegration of a white city woman on a poor farm on the Rhodesian veld, and its evocation of heat and encroaching wilderness, menace, and paralyzed despair is very reminiscent of The Memoirs of a Survivor:
At night the rain would drum down on the roof, on and on, endlessly, and the grass would spring up in the space of empty ground about the house, and the bushes would follow, and by the next season creepers would trail over the verandah and pull down the tins of plants, so that they crashed into pullulating masses of wet growth, and geraniums grew side by side with the blackjacks. A branch would nudge through the broken windowpanes, and, slowly, slowly, the shoulders of trees would press against the brick, until at last it leaned and crumbled and fell, a hopeless ruin, with sheets of rusting iron resting on the bushes.
It is in these long despairing landscapes that Mrs. Lessing is most at home. With their opposites, scenes of fertility and promise, she falters a little; but hell has always made better copy than heaven.