But the ritual drama of Walking in the Shade is her love-hate affair with communism, less than a marriage but more than a one-night stand. Almost perversely, she joined the Party not with her friends in Africa during the war, but in England in 1952, even then holding off for the sake of appearances until after she returned from a very guided tour of the Soviet Union—art galleries, St. Basil’s, collective farms, Yasnaya Polyana—whereupon she not only attended cocktail parties at the Soviet embassy and sold Daily Workers door-to-door, but also sat through endless stupefying meetings of the Writers’ Group in her own room, as usual the perfect hostess. When at last she did quit the Party, sometime in 1957—after Hungary; after the Twentieth Party Congress; after the Soviet news agency Tass paid her way back to Africa; after she published A Ripple in the Storm, the Martha Quest novel that made merciless fun of her erstwhile comrades in Rhodesia; after many letters to and from E.P. Thompson—she kept her lip zipped about it so as not to give right-wing butcherboys the Schadenfreudian satisfaction.
Simultaneously, as if to stomp all over her foreign and domestic policies, there was also “the most serious love in my life”—the refugee Czech psychiatrist she calls Jack, a former Communist and current Marxist whose friends at home had been devoured by the purges. With Jack, she went to Paris and Eastern Europe. About Jack, she wrote a novel, Retreat to Innocence(1956), which she’s ever since suppressed. Why? It was “shallow,” “soft-centered and sentimental,” she says. Others suggest that it may have been embarrassingly “socialist-realist.” Or perhaps she prefers not being reminded of a time when she still believed in radical politics, social justice, and systemic change.
Odd, really. Much of this mid-Fifties period was later covered in her magnificent Golden Notebook. Although the blocked writer Anna Wulf hopes to “create a new way of seeing” and bring forth a whole healthy novel from the separate sickly parts of her fractious past and divided personality, her research notebooks—black for Africa, red for politics, blue for men, yellow for fiction—never add up. Having seen through capitalism, colonialism, racism, sexism, Marxism, patriarchy, and psychonanalysis to a lonely, chilly impasse, she is still a mess. No matter how many times she bathes, she can’t come clean. There are many unpleasant smells in Lessing’s autobiographies—camphor, horses, paraffin, chamber pots, dead fish, wet wool, the habits of nuns, her father’s crotch—but none so redolent as the very idea of Anna’s compulsive washings of herself in The Golden Notebook, so that she won’t smell of her own period. About an author who knows so much, you’d think there’s nothing she couldn’t or wouldn’t say.
Yet somewhere along the path to a higher wisdom, Doris Lessing has found it necessary to scorn every vestige of a younger self who might have been noble, virtuous, brave, or even sincere. All these younger selves have to be as contemptible as “Comrade Johnny” in The Sweetest Dream, a Stalinist snake-oil salesman in a Mao jacket. In Walking in the Shade she says, “The root of communism—a love of revolution—is, I believe, masochism, pleasure in pain, satisfaction in suffering, identification with the redeeming blood.” This ignores Emma Goldman, Pablo Neruda, Jessica Mitford, Victor Serge, and so many others, some of them known to her personally, that you wonder about her memory hole. Likewise, in a review in Time Bites of a memoir she likes as much as I do, Alma Guillermoprieto’s Dancing with Cuba, she can’t help but use the book as a stick to beat up on the naive young for their romantic inclination “towards sacrifice, pain, death” and then as a sax to blow some smoky blues:
This book will make a good number of aged people like myself wince, and laugh at youthful folly, but laughing out of the other side of our mouths we do sometimes suffer strange feelings of loss. Everywhere are the poor, the unfed, the insulted, the injured: it was nice, for a time, to think there could be an end to all this.
The loss I feel is of that left-wing secular culture whose rich texture she herself conveyed in The Golden Notebook, where Anna entertained the likes of Antonio Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, and Julia Kristeva. Instead: condescension. Such a wised-up schoolmarmy future—in which no one is ridiculous enough to think there could ever be an end to poverty, hunger, injury, and insult—may be Sufi adulthood, but it isn’t anywhere I’d want to live, nor the sort of fable I’d read to my grandchildren, nor even a reason to tie my shoes. Surely you can feel as bad as Killjoy Beckett without pretending to be the only grownup in the room.
During that space of time (which was timeless) she understood quite finally her smallness, the unimportance of humanity. In her ears was an inchoate grinding, the great wheels of movement, and it was inhuman…and no part of that sound was Martha’s voice.
—Doris Lessing, Martha Quest
Except that so often she is the only grownup in the room. For a dervish, Lessing’s not exactly light on her feet. Lofty and heavy, dogged and relentless, stubborn and punitive, she wears you down. It’s as if she knows so much, and so much better, that we have to carry her around—as Dann carried the snow dog to safety—all the way to Stockholm for a Nobel Prize long overdue. She has written tens of thousands of pages, many of them slapdash, millions of words, none of them mushy, one masterwork, The Golden Notebook, and may be the twentieth century’s least ingratiating great novelist, whose fatalism is often difficult to distinguish from complacency, and who is harder on women than on men: there is “a basic female ruthlessness,” she has said, “female unregenerate, and it comes from a much older time than Christianity or any other softener of savage moralities. It is my right.”
For someone who insists that each of us evolves immediately from “me” to “we,” as if, behind the Veil of Maya or under the Sephiroth Tree, individuality were a degenerative disease, her own ego is as unyielding as the ice on Planet 8. Should you fail to see how metaphors of dervishes, from Rumi’s Persian poetry or from modern molecular physics, can heal the hurt in our history and intimacy, she will feed you to her cats. High up in some impossible balcony, she looks down as if amused to see us strut and fret on a summerstock stage, the way Kate Brown in The Summer Before the Dark (1973) looked down on a production of A Month in the Country:
But what a remarkable thing it was, this room full of people, animals rather, all looking in one direction, at other dressed-up animals lifted up to perform on a stage, animals covered with cloth and bits of fur, ornamented with stones, their faces and claws painted with colour.
Here are a few of the many things she has told us that we probably didn’t want to hear: “There is really nothing we can do about what we were born with.” And: “Our lives are governed by voices, caresses, threats we cannot remember.” And: “Nothing in history suggests that we may expect anything but wars, tyrants, bad times, calamities, while good times are always temporary.” And, perhaps worst of all: “Where I think you may be wrong is that you seem to be thinking that if you decide not to become one thing, the other thing you become has to be better.”
These many Lessings, fifty-five volumes of her, add up to one big bill of indictment, one long history of disenchantments, and fifteen rounds with a heavyweight reality principle, after which an anchorite’s diet of cauliflower, sourdough, Mercurochrome, and scorn. If she doesn’t believe in free will, liberal humanism, historical determinism, existential psychology, the holy ghost, the Enlightenment, or victimhood (and she doesn’t), what does she believe in? Fate gets many mentions, bad luck and good looks play their part, zeitgeists are often blamed (“an era’s commanding flow”), bad boys will be bad boys, and Mother Nature never sleeps. But kinship, cats, and interconnectedness are at the top of her approved list. So is holding on, seeing it through, staying the stalwart course even as biker gangs pour through the city gates. According to this toughest of cookies, Original Sin may be hard cheese, but the real bitch is Eternal Recurrence.
Then there are mothers and daughters, as old as archetypes get. No one before or after Lessing has better anatomized the sick self-sabotaging of smart women who allow themselves to settle for indentured servitude as house mothers, group mothers, householders, hostesses, caretakers, nannies, nurses, and “neurotic nurturers.” We see this from Kate Brown in The Summer Before the Dark, who so efficiently organized her family, her office, and the care and feeding of a whole continent that she practically abolished herself, to Alice Mellings in The Good Terrorist, a lunatic Mother Courage among bomb-throwing nihilist losers, to the unnamed middle-aged surrogate mom in Memoirs of a Survivor(1975), who surrounds a menaced Emily with ladders, clouds, nests, and eggs, to Al-Ith in The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five(1980), the “cosmic mother” who must marry the brutish King Ben Ata and teach him how to think, to Frances Lennox in The Sweetest Dream, who assumes responsibility for her own two boys, their friends and schoolmates, her ex-husband’s second and third wives, and any other strays who show up in Hampstead on the run from abusive homes, hateful politics, mental wards, and African colonies, as if Frances were a convent or crash pad. Even her own sons think Frances Lennox is too promiscuous in her hospitality. At what point does Earth Mothering amount to masochism?
And yet if there is any lesson Lessing has tried to burn into our brains, in book after book on page after page, as prophecy and curse, it is that somewhere a girl-child is crying, ignored or abused or abandoned, and someone must save her, no excuses. Look at and listen to Emily, in Memoirs of a Survivor:
Emily, eyes shut, her hands on her thighs, rocked herself back and forth and from side to side, and she was weeping as a woman weeps, which is to say as if the earth were bleeding….
The blinded eyes stare through you; they are seeing some ancient enemy which is, thank heavens, not yourself. No, it is Life or Fate or Destiny, some such force which has struck that woman to the heart, and for ever will she sit, rocking in her grief, which is archaic and dreadful, and the sobs which are being torn out of her are one of the pillars on which everything has to rest. Nothing less could justify them.
This is a politics of guardian angels. Emily, you should know, was Doris Lessing’s mother’s name.